GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 6, 2013

Conomo residents' conundrum

Tenants ponder futures after mixed court ruling

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — ESSEX — A decision by an Essex County Superior Court judge earlier this week essentially said home ownership in Conomo Point can be decided on a case-by-case basis over this town-owned land.

Now, residents are wondering what it may mean for their own futures.

The leases around Beach Circle, Robbins Island Road and northern Conomo Point are set to expire this year, the second year under a three-year, short-term “bridge” lease program.

Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki said town officials will likely be discussing the possibility of offering a third year to tenants in the future. But the town does not have any obligation to continue leasing, residents said.

Middle Road resident Jean Goldsberry, now in her 80s, said she would be interested in leasing, should the rent rates be reasonable. But those land rental rates over the last year have resulted in another suit against the town, with tenants claiming the bridge lease rates are far too high.

Goldsberry said that, before the bridge leases, she paid roughly $1,000 annually to the town in land rent (tenants also pay property taxes). But in 2012, she said, the rent went up to about $5,000, this year, it has been nearly $8,000, and the rent next year is going to be more than $10,000.

“The cost is so prohibitive,” she said, noting that she and her husband, John, took control of the lease when John’s parents died in the 1960s.

Goldsberry is on a fixed income. Like other seasonal residents of Conomo Point, she has a second house, but added that she is concerned about Conomo Point and how the town will act as landlords in the future. Plus, she said that she and her husband’s bid to take over and clean up a nearby house at 138 Conomo Point Road is “a dead deal” blocked by the town — even though the Goldsberrys offered to pay back taxes while taking over the lease.

For years, the property has been tied up in housing and probate courts.

As Town Administrator Zubricki said, “It’s a rather complex matter,”

If the town does decide to keep leasing, Conomo Point residents have the right of first refusal. But Steve Cuthbertson, who is a Northern Conomo Point resident and current chair of the Conomo Point Association, said he has considered his options, should the leases end.

Cuthbertson, a plaintiff in the bridge lease suit, said if an offer to buy is too high, he’ll take his house off the land.

“I’m quite sure my house is not attached (to the land),” he said.

During the court findings, it was clear that the tenants themselves owned the houses, but only when the land was leased.

Whether or not houses could feasibly be moved, if they were even meant to be moved and if there was any prior agreement with the town were aspects of the court findings, the “situation with Essex is so precarious,” Cuthbertson said.

The last thing he will do, he added, is leave his house for the town to take; if he cannot afford to move it, he would rather sell it to someone with land that can hold the house.

“Conomo Point,” he said, “will end up being a chopped up mess.”

Cuthbertson added that, because it is unclear whether many tenants own their homes — the court findings only involved four plaintiffs — housing values could go down.

“It doesn’t change much of anything,” he said.

Bob Sisk of Conomo Point Road shared the same sentiments.

Sisk, recognizing the Department of Environmental Protection order that has to limit the waste water coming from Conomo Point, said he generally felt that the town does intend to sell or keep leasing to a majority of residents.

Throughout various presentations, he said, the town has set aside different houses for demolition and reconstruction to meet DEP standards; one route is to limit the number of bedrooms on town-owned property in Conomo Point.

Sisk said his house was not considered attached to the land, just loosely sitting atop a concrete skirt and said he would rather buy the land than go through the cost of moving it.

“We are right back to square one,” he said.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.