TREMONT — Documents regarding a consent agreement between the town of Tremont and the owners of Acadia Wilderness Lodge campground have been released per court order and show that attorneys for both parties were working together out of the public eye to settle a violation before it had been issued.
On July 8, Judge Michael Duddy, settling a Freedom of Access Act request made by Concerned Tremont Residents (CTR), ruled on the release of a number of emails and documents regarding the consent agreement between the town and James and Kenya Hopkins, owners of the Acadia Wilderness Lodge campground.
The emails, consisting of several communications between the legal counsel of both parties, showed that attorneys for the town and Acadia Wilderness Lodge worked together on the consent agreement, as well as a notice of violation for the Hopkinses. Emails show that the consent agreement was drafted before it was discussed in an executive session and before the notice of violation was issued to the Hopkinses.
In an email from Acadia Wilderness Lodge attorney Andy Hamilton to town attorney James Collier on April 4, Hamilton provided drafts for both the consent agreement and the notice of violation.
Collier edited and revised Hamilton’s drafts into what became the final drafts of each document.
The notice of violation was not issued to the Hopkinses until April 26 and mentions the possibility of entering into a consent agreement to resolve the violations. That agreement had already been written.
“The Town will then consider entering into an Administrative Consent Agreement with you to confirm final resolution of the above-stated violation,” said the notice of violation to the Hopkinses dated April 26, and signed by current CEO John Larson.
According to the notice of violation, the inspection of the property when the violations were noticed took place on April 25, but emails between the attorneys show that the consent agreement was written weeks before.
In an email from Collier to Hamilton on April 12, it is mentioned that CEO Larson will actually have to agree to and sign the notice of violation that had been drafted by the attorneys.
“By the way, Mr. Larson still has to agree to all of this as he signs off on it,” said Collier to Hamilton in an email.
The previously drafted consent agreement was approved during a Select Board meeting on May 2.
Having access to these documents and emails is a point of interest for Cindy Lawson and the rest of Concerned Tremont Residents, who have opposed Acadia Wilderness Lodge from the beginning. Lawson and her husband are abutters to the campground property and have long been looking for legal avenues to see the development of the campsite stopped.
“My husband and I are abutters to the Acadia wilderness lodge,” said Lawson. “Because of our concerns about the campground and about traffic and community impact, we started the effort to be involved in what was going on with the public hearings to express our concerns.”
“Our lawyer made a request to the town for any records related to the consent agreement, and there was a list of several emails that the town did not produce, stating that they were confidential,” said Lawson, “that shows conversations between the Hopkinses’ and Town’s lawyers long before John Larson went to the place to inspect.”
Initially, Tremont released some emails to CTR, but not as many as the group had hoped, so they took the issue to court where it was ruled that more documents and emails would be released to them.
“The CTR group filed an appeal, they requested copies of emails to a freedom of access request, the town provided several emails and then provided a list of emails the town attorney felt we did not need to provide,” said Jesse Dunbar, former CEO and current Tremont town manager. “The court has since ordered a partial release of an additional four and OK’d the withholding of two.”
The consent agreement between the town and the campground has to do with ordinance violations committed by the campground during the process of making changes to their building plan. The campsite that was originally going to consist of 11 cabins and an office building was modified to replace the cabins with yurts.
Dunbar signed off on the changes to the plan, and approved the switch from cabins to yurts, citing that it was a minor change. The CEO has the authority to approve minor changes.
“It was my understanding at the time that there was no increase to the size, so it was just a change from cabins to yurts,” said Dunbar. “It was an in-the-field change.”
While the minor changes were approved by Dunbar, the town stated that the campground had not acted in compliance with Article X, Sections E and F, of the Site Plan Review Ordinance, since they did not provide the CEO with the original approved site plans at the time the changes were approved. The sections under Article X in this ordinance were revised on May 9 but were in effect at the time the notice was issued.
Dunbar did not comment further on the approval of these changes as they are related to a pending court decision that has not yet been ruled on.
“I couldn’t comment on it because it’s currently in litigation,” said Dunbar.
The other violation was that the 11 yurts, which had been approved, were significantly larger than the cabins that the campground had originally planned to build.
“Once the yurts were actually constructed, they were in fact larger than what was approved and expected,” said Dunbar, “so the consent agreement was to reduce the total structures on the property from 12 (including the office building) to eight (yurts), therefore finding it back within square footage.”
Currently, the decision on CTR’s appeal of the consent agreement is still pending in court but will soon be decided by Judge Duddy. According to the town, consent agreements cannot be appealed, and Dunbar is confident in the town’s legal counsel.
“Our argument is it’s pretty clear in our town ordinance that these are the guidelines for consent agreements and they are not appealable,” said Dunbar. “Our attorneys are confident.”