A Vermont Supreme Court decision is forcing the owners of 28 lakeside cottages in Colchester to leave their homes, some of which have been in the same families for generations.
The en masse eviction of the members of the Malletts Bay Homeowners Association is likely the final chapter of a long, rancorous dispute between the cottagers and the family that owns the land underneath their homes. Thousands of Vermonters have dwellings — often vacation homes, trailers and hunting camps — on parcels that belong to someone else. Colchester alone lists approximately 200 leased-land properties.
On this particular Malletts Bay acreage, individual plots that started as simple campsites evolved into summer cottages, the majority of which have now been converted into year-round homes. As a result, people of modest means wound up in lakeside residences. Pam Surprenant rented a place in the little colony for 12 years before she purchased one for $35,000 in 1996.
Doing so came with a risk: Although the leases in such real estate arrangements tend to be long — 25 years is not uncommon — violations allow the landowner to evict the homeowners and take possession of the structures they leave behind.
Members of the Malletts Bay Homeowners Association had a single lease with the Mongeon family, which has owned the seven-acre property along East Lakeshore Drive since 1920. After the resident group failed to fix an eroding embankment, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled on June 10, 2016, that the landlord could rip up the lease — nearly 20 years early.
Every home has to be vacated — or relocated — by this May.
"I've worked all of my life to pay for this place that I now have to move out of," said Surprenant, a 73-year-old grandmother. Her neighbors Brenda and Wayne Moore, who say they live paycheck to paycheck, are still paying off their mortgage.
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Pam Surprenant and Bentley
For years, the Mongeons and their tenants coexisted amicably, according to several of the residents, and the family members still own a few cottages in the colony. Ten of the homes sit on a 25-foot bank above Lake Champlain; the others are located on a small plot across the road. Residents share the private beach.
Some of the cottages are showing their age, but most are well cared for and have been personalized with touches such as picket fences and pink trim. Peggy Potter, a Waitsfield artist who bought a bayside camp in 1982, recalls planting lilac bushes with her then-neighbor Andrea Mongeon.
The Mongeon family urged its tenants to organize in 1995 and signed a single 25-year lease with the group, which agreed to pay a lump sum of $28,000 a year in rent. (That amount has since doubled, according to the association.) Several residents recall that Andy Mongeon, who oversaw the property at the time, told them his family planned to sell them the land eventually. In 2001, the group purchased a 44 percent interest in the land from Albert Belval, whom members describe as an estranged Mongeon relative.
In December 2002 the Mongeons extended the association's lease to 2036. Having a long-term contract made it easier for residents to get mortgages and loans to buy and improve their dwellings. The association tried to negotiate a full purchase of the land in the years that followed, but the Mongeons "kept hemming and hawing," said Surprenant, a member of the association's board at the time.
The homeowners then made what Potter considers "our fatal move" and a "tragic mistake." They sued the Mongeons to gain full possession of the property. In May 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled for the Mongeons, awarding them full possession and forcing the association to sell its share back to the family for around $200,000.
Residents say relations deteriorated further after Andy Mongeon's son, Bruce, took charge of the property. He declined to comment for this story. In Potter's telling, it's been like "infantile children playing war with each other ever since."
The conflict came to a head in 2011, after spring flooding raised Lake Champlain water levels to record highs, undermining a seawall and seriously eroding an already unstable bank behind several of the lakefront houses. The lease charges the homeowners with keeping the land in "good condition" and ensuring it doesn't "suffer any waste."
When the erosion went unaddressed, the Mongeons' lawyer sent the association a letter in September 2011 declaring that the group was violating its lease and had 45 days to fix damaged seawalls and address other alleged deficiencies on the property. The association denied that it was in default and "took no steps to remedy the situation," according to court documents.
Tracy Lamphere, who was president of the association at the time, offered a somewhat different account during a recent interview. He said the association's bylaws stipulated that each individual was responsible for maintaining the land around his or her home, and he had been trying to persuade the affected members to fix their seawalls.
When that failed, Lamphere claimed, the association began to address the issue, starting at the house where the erosion was worst, but didn't have enough time or funds to complete the project. "We had to jump in as an association and fix that first house," he said, which cost roughly $30,000. "In hindsight, we probably should have fixed all of them in one shot, but we didn't have the money."
"These people are on Social Security," he added, and can barely pay their taxes.
In January 2012, the Mongeons sued the association in Chittenden County Superior Court. The group's lawyer countered that the embankment didn't fall within its purview. The court sided with the Mongeons, ordering the association to pay the Mongeons $135,000 for the seawall repairs and to cover the family's legal fees.
It did not, however, grant the family's request to nullify the association's lease. Doing so, the court concluded, would be "especially inequitable, and a sanction entirely out of proportion to the lease violations."
In July 2015, both sides appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which determined that the Mongeons were indeed entitled to terminate the lease and evict the tenants by April 30 of this year.
The association has appealed again in an attempt to delay the move-out date. As the attorney for the residents argued in an earlier brief to the court: "The majority of the members in the association are retired, without means to move their house" or "weather the loss of such a significant asset." The association hasn't yet paid any portion of the $135,000 the court says it owes.
Lamphere, a mental health counselor, said that the home he and his wife bought in the lakeside community circa 2000 was their first. Flipping through a photo album that documented their renovation work, he added, "You wouldn't believe how many hours we put into that house." Lamphere's daughter, who works as a chef, now lives in the home year-round; she hasn't found another place yet.
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Paige (left) and Nikki Builta-Paradise
"It's just heartbreaking," said Nikki Builta-Paradise. The 38-year-old crisis clinician lives with her partner and their teenage daughter, Paige, in the house where she grew up.
Her mother was also raised on the property; she met Builta-Paradise's father at a beach bonfire shortly after his family moved in next door. He proposed just days later. "It's not just a structure. It's a home," Builta-Paradise said.
"I knew it was risky," said Surprenant, reflecting on her decision to purchase a house on leased land. Still, she figured she'd be dead by the time the lease expired. She noted that she'll make her last mortgage payment in a few months. She gets by on Social Security and a pension from working dispatcher in South Burlington.* Photos of her children and grandchildren are all over her cozy one-bedroom bungalow across the road from the bay.
Her ex-husband, Michael Carroll, owns the house across the street, also on Mongeon-owned land. The pair is planning to rent a place together in South Hero — out of financial necessity, not by choice.
They're more worried about their neighbor, Wayne Moore, who assembled computer chips at IBM for 10 years before getting laid off. Now the 50-year-old man has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and makes do with a disability benefit. His wife, Brenda, 60, is a sales clerk at Goodwill. She has diabetes, which makes it painful for her to stand all day, but, she said, "It pays the bills."
The biggest one is their mortgage: The Moores haven't made much progress paying off the $100,000 home they bought 15 years ago. They're not sure what this means for them, although they assume the house will end up in foreclosure. Wayne has been scouring the internet for apartments or mobile homes. So far he hasn't found a place they can afford and that will accept their four dogs.
For Potter and her family — including her daughter, the musician Grace Potter — the loss is more taxing emotionally than financially. "I'm extremely attached to it," Peggy said of their cottage. "I always thought if someone tried to kick us off that property ... I'd be the old lady sitting there with a shotgun."
The Potters spent summers at their lakefront cottage making art — bowls, murals, poetry and music. "Grace had her first keyboard up there so she was constantly cranking out the tunes," Peggy said.
"We were stunned," said James Mix, who's lived next to the Potters' place for 20 years. He recalled listening to Grace sing Bonnie Raitt songs on her porch. The unemployed salesman and his yoga-instructor wife stand to lose two houses because they own and rent out another house on the property. He spent $20,000 to stabilize the bank in front of his house and thousands more fixing up the two dwellings he and his wife "own." Mix said he'd sooner tear them down than leave them for the Mongeons.
Most people assume the cottages that remain standing will be rented to others at a much steeper price. Colchester town officials point out that waterfront zoning regulations limit the options for building new structures on the land.
"They've been very, very tight-lipped about what their intentions are," Peggy Potter said of the Mongeons, adding that the conflict could have had a different outcome.
Mix said of the court decision: "As a finding of law, it's probably accurate." But, he added, "It's incredibly harsh."
*Correction, January 11, 2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of Pam Surprenant's pension — she receives it from having worked as a dispatcher for South Burlington.