AYER -- "Targeted" properties again consumed a healthy portion of the selectmen's meeting on Tuesday night. Town attorney Gregg Corbo of the Boston firm Kopelman and Paige advised the board on the ins-and-outs of property enforcement.
But before Corbo briefed the board in open session, Selectman Christopher Hillman revealed Selectman Frank Maxant had refused to recuse himself from the board's closed-door session earlier that evening to talk to Corbo about specific targeted properties. Hillman revealed that Maxant was asked to remove himself from the discussion because Maxant is "openly friends" with Hugh Ernisse, who owns targeted homes on William and Washington streets.
Hillman "respectfully" asked Maxant to step aside during the open meeting discussion with Corbo. Maxant refused.
Maxant said his attitude on so-called targeted properties has "remained unchanged for 20 years and has absolutely nothing to do with the people involved."
"I completely and 100 percent disagree with Mr. Maxant's opinion on this," said Hillman.
Chairman Jim Fay said "the same question was posted" to Maxant in executive session and that Maxant refused to stand down. Fay said the board nixed the earlier session with its attorney, feeling a discussion that included Maxant would be inappropriate.
Selectman Pauline Conley prefaced Corbo's public remarks by stating the board had agreed in advance "this will be a generic discussion not relating to any property.
Corbo addressed the board, explaining that various officials are empowered to initiate action against targeted properties. Sometimes jurisdictions can overlap and entities can and should work together, said Corbo.
Corbo advised that the Board of Health oversees public health concerns, the building inspector enforces town bylaws, the state building code and state law regarding dangerous structures. The Conservation Commission controls wetlands concerns, and the Police and Fire departments exercise general police powers.
"Oftentimes these things can be resolved in an informal manner" with outreach to the owners, advised Corbo. Admittedly, "it doesn't always go smoothly."
Orders with deadlines can issue locally, along with noncriminal town disposition. But Corbo said sometimes court action is needed. Town-initiated criminal complaints through district court can lead to fines or imprisonment, while civil complaints in housing or superior court can likewise lead to court orders on compliance issues.
"You have the flexibility to tailor the remedy to meet the particular situation," said Corbo. "The court route is swift and effective. The court doesn't like to be ignored."
But, on the "out-lying" and recalcitrant property owners, "you should expect a time-consuming process" and not expect "results overnight ... but in my experience, the results are ultimately achieved," said Corbo.
While the selectmen have pondered whether more stringent town bylaws are needed to address lodged concerns, Corbo said there's no "magic bullet" to clean up targeted properties. Corbo advised that the town's approach should be consistent action to ensure "like people are treated in like fashion" without singling-out "one person out to the exclusion of others."
Maxant pressed Corbo to define the term "nuisance." Corbo said it's the "persistent use of property" which interferes with the rights of others "by causing public injury" via sight, sound or smell. Corbo suggested the definition is "intentionally vague" to "be molded to fit the needs of a particular community."
Maxant claimed the Board of Health has "no authority to harass somebody" on the complaints based on aesthetics. Corbo said aesthetic concerns can indicate other health and safety concerns like ground water contamination, rodents or the potential of harm to those entering the targeted property. Conversely, Corbo said complaints on purely aesthetic grounds "may not justify a significant expenditure of public resources."
"I'll try to be as vague as possible here," said Hillman. "It has come to my attention" that one such targeted property has "hazardous debris buried" on site, including asbestos.
"How would we investigate that?" asked Hillman. Corbo suggested complaint to the building inspector, Board of Health and ultimately the Department of Environmental Protection, which can issue its own orders and pursue enforcement.
Conley asked for ballpark timelines and legal estimates for legal approaches that "can take years" to reach resolution. "What do you estimate the number of hours or cost to the municipality to be? That's a huge consideration for the taxpayers that we would then have to justify."
Corbo hesitated before warning, "You're starting to tread upon what I want to talk about in executive session. I don't want to sit here in open session and tie your hands in that way. All I can say is it's not going to happen overnight."
Later in the evening, Maxant and the board tussled again. Maxant called for annual Town Meeting to consider revisions to the town's sex offender residency restricting bylaw.
Maxant repeated his prior claim that an attorney defending the town on a recent civil action advised the board in closed-door session that the town bylaw is susceptible to constitutional challenge. Maxant said his request was "very time critical."
Selectman Gary Luca objected, stating the discussion was "discussed during executive session" and therefore should not be discussed publically.
"That is absolutely wrong under the open meeting law, Mr. Luca," fired back Maxant. To his peers, Maxant talked over efforts to adjourn the meeting. "We're doing a terrible disservice to this town."
Fay urged Maxant to "get on your soapbox" outside of the meeting chambers. "Good night, Mr. Maxant."
Maxant fired another volley at Luca, inviting him to "come to the meeting Thursday night and learn something." Ayer Town Hall is the setting for a Thursday night open meeting law seminar from 6 to 8 p.m. lead by counsel from the Attorney General's Office.