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Who Pays When the Town Gets it Wrong?

As the budget seasons heats up, a question that Tiverton taxpayers often ask is why is legal spending so high, and why is the town involved in so many legal disputes?  More often than not, it’s because of mistakes by the town.

Here’s a case in point.

On Leger Lane, two neighbors (and now the town itself) are caught up in a dispute over the construction of a duplex home.  Without getting into all of the details of zoning, overlay districts, setback requirements, and so forth, the basic problem is straightforward:  The town’s law firm and the town planner at the time gave a green light for a landowner to construct a duplex on his property, but now the town says he can’t.  The landowner was within his rights to rely on the town officials, and the neighbor is within her rights to rely on the town ordinances.  That is, both neighbors appear to be in the right, though irreconcilably, and off to court it goes.  Which one will “win” is yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure: The town was either wrong then or it is now.

For those looking for more details on this debacle, it’s been widely reported and also came up when I was a guest on Episode 6 of the Tiverton on Track podcast series (available at tivertonfactcheck.org).  It’s now neighbor against neighbor with the town exposed to costly damages and certainly more legal time and expense.  Meanwhile, the structure sits there half-built.  Who will pay to fix this mess?

Well, it looks like it could be a classic case of legal malpractice by the law firm that the current, post-recall council majority embraced the last time they were in charge.  But will they demand that the law firm pay for the cost?  Will their PAC buddies publicly call out for a claim to be filed with the malpractice insurance carrier?  Or will this be yet another case dealt with in the back of town hall in closed executive session where the taxpayers get to see nothing but the bill?

Have something to say?  Talk about it on Tivertalk.

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Robert Coulter

Robert Coulter has served Tiverton as an elected member of the Town Council, the Charter Review Commission, and Budget Committee. A lawyer, he is also a founding member of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association.

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