Neighbors at odds in Preston case

Preston - A longstanding dispute over wetland and zoning violations, cease and desist orders and permits issued for previous work done illegally took an unusual twist last week when frustrated neighbors of the Krug Road property issued their own cease and desist order against the town for failing to take action against the property owner.

Eight neighbors and one neighbor's relative submitted the two-page "order" to the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission and to the Board of Selectmen last week, asking the town to stop working with property owner George Benjamin to correct violations. They want the town to fine Benjamin and use the money to hire engineers to restore wetlands.

Edwin St. Germain, a spokesman for the group, urged the Board of Selectmen to disband the wetlands commission or remove Chairman John Moulson, claiming he was not following wetlands regulations. But later in the meeting, selectmen voted unanimously to reappoint Moulson to a five-year term, citing his years of dedicated volunteer service.

The issue became heated at the Jan. 15 wetlands meeting, when attorney Harry Heller, representing Benjamin, withdrew the latest correction plan, and the commission tabled the matter.

Several neighbors questioned the commission during public comment period at the end of the agenda, and St. Germain admitted he became angry and shouted at commission members demanding the right to speak on the issue. Moulson called for state police. St. Germain left the room before the trooper arrived and spoke with a trooper outside.

Two days later, St. Germain addressed the Board of Selectmen for an hour outlining neighbors' concerns and complaints about the wetlands commission and wetlands officer Len Johnson.

St. Germain said neighbors plan to file a civil suit against Benjamin and might sue the town if they remain dissatisfied with the wetlands commission's actions.

Records in Town Hall date back to the 1970s regarding the Benjamin property at 58 Krug Road, with violation notices issued for zoning and wetlands work.

Several years ago, the dispute surrounded construction of a "storage shed/cabana" near a pond. Original plans called for a shed, but Benjamin later told the commission his family used it for shade and recreation.

The building constructed was larger than the plans showed. A septic system was disputed and Benjamin was ordered to remove it and to connect the cabana to a sewer line to his nearby house.

Neighbors have complained that Benjamin built a dam without permits - minutes from a 1989 meeting said the "irrigation pond" did not need a permit and was too small to require state permits.

Neighbors now say Benjamin allegedly is crossing onto their properties for the driveway work. Benjamin claims he has a right-of-way onto the land, and Heller submitted a letter Jan. 4 saying a title search confirmed the right-of-way to be valid.

Neighbors say the excavation has ruined the property with raw steep slopes and no erosion control. In his complaint to selectmen Jan. 17, St. Germain said the neighbors' cease and desist order to the town was "a last ditch effort to stop something that's way out of control."

St. Germain complained that the wetlands commission repeatedly has allowed Benjamin to correct past violations and keep the work intact, such as the cabana and its sewer line. They want the excavation damage, which includes steep, gaping cuts into hillsides and trees removed, restored to previous states.

"He has never been fined, never been asked to remove anything, except to remove an illegal septic tank," St. Germain said, adding that Benjamin was allowed to dig a trench for the sewer line.

Neighbors are worried that the commission will allow Benjamin to submit his own restoration plan and do the work himself, St. Germain said.

Moulson, who also attended the selectmen meeting, disputed several of St. Germain's points. He said residents have spoken at meetings, and St. Germain recently spoke for a half hour.

The current dispute started when neighbors sent a complaint and "demand letter" to the wetlands commission Nov. 18 saying wetlands officer Len Johnson had refused to meet with them and was unwilling to tour the property.

Johnson inspected the property Nov. 21 and issued Benjamin a cease and desist order Dec. 8 for excavation work being done within 100 feet of a watercourse. He was ordered to come to a Dec. 18 commission hearing.

During the hearing, George and Donna Benjamin said they were told by First Selectman Bob Congdon - who handles driveway permits - that they did not need a permit because the driveway was onto a right-of-way, not a town road. But Moulson said the work did need a wetlands permit.

The commission affirmed the violation and ordered Benjamin to "restore the disturbed areas to their original condition." He must submit an engineering plan to be reviewed by CLA Engineering, the town's engineering consultant.

The commission deemed his plan inadequate at the Jan. 15 meeting and tabled action after Heller asked for another month to respond. The next meeting will be Feb. 19.

Moulson told selectmen the commission must follow the legal process for handling the dispute or could face a lawsuit. Neighbors will be allowed to speak during public hearings and public comment times, but the commission cannot engage in conversations outside the legal proceedings.

"We rejected his plan at the last meeting," Moulson said. "That plan was produced by an engineer. I'm willing to give him a second chance."

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.


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