Letter: What Neighbors Can Do. Reflections On A Home Conversion To Student Rental Gone Bad


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Recently, an unpleasant incident unfolded before my eyes that serves as a reminder to us all of how important it is that neighbors look out for each other. Here, I give a lengthy account of recent activities in my neighborhood. Please bear with me, as I believe this tale has relevance to broader issues in town.

I belatedly learned that a neighbor, a single and vulnerable woman, was being abused by new owners of an abutting property. While renovating their property, the new owners placed a dumpster in my neighbor’s driveway, blocking access to her garage. They had never spoken with my neighbor about their plans, which could have led to a mutually acceptable solution. To add insult to injury, they yelled at my neighbor about her inability to extract her blocked car, eventually moving the car for her themselves.

Once renovations were permitted, the new owners rented the house to students, promising them that a car could be parked in my neighbor’s driveway, again inhibiting her use of her own driveway. My neighbor spoke with the students who ceased parking in the driveway. Yet workers on the house continued to impede my neighbor’s access to her garage. She would ask them to move their vehicles, but this only provoked the new abutters. They repeatedly yelled at her, ordering her to speak neither to the student tenants nor to the workers. In September, the abutters sent an email to my neighbor stating: [re parking] that they had “full and unconditional use and access to a ten foot strip of that driveway running from the street all the way back.” This assertion refers to an easement granted in the deed to property, granting a right of way.

“Granting also a right of way ten (10) feet wide along the Southerly side of the granted premises over land of [. . .] to the garage on the granted premises a distance of fifty (50) feet more or less, which right of way was reserved in deed [. . .] dated September 13, 1921,” reading further: “The grantor specifically reserves as appurtenant to other property of this grantor adding the tract herein conveyed on the north a right of way along the northerly line of the granted premises ten (10) feet wide, together with the right to pass and repass thereon. The right of way extending back to the garage fifty (50) feet more or less.”

Until the new owners took over, there has never been a misunderstanding in respect to what the easement means.

One does not require a legal degree to surmise that “right of way” does not constitute the right to impede the property owner’s use of her property. Certainly, it does not grant “full and unconditional use and access to a ten foot strip of that driveway running from the street all the way back.”

Whenever my neighbor expressed disagreement with the abutters’ use of the driveway or spoke to any of the workers, the new owners responded to her in voices she experienced as “yelling,” ordering her not to speak to any workers. And there have been numerous occasions for her to speak to the workers. By way of example, when one of their workers took her ladder, the worker “explained” that the “easement” gave her permission to take and use it.

In the September email quoted above, the new owners announced that they would construct a parking lot behind their property.

“In the spirit of being good stewards of our property and of being good neighbors we have contracted a company to clear the back of our property and hard pack it for the express purpose of parking. Until then, after that and really forever more we still expect you to respect the easement by leaving that side of the drive clear for access by us, our tenants or any agents there on our behalf. Our intention is that when the back is cleared and finished for parking the pressure on the use of the easement will be somewhat lightened.

On receipt of this alarming email on September 20, my neighbor rushed, after dark, to the house of a representative of our neighborhood association. The next day, our representative called the town’s inspection office, which supplied her with a copy of the new owners’ parking plan. There’s no plan for parking in the rear.

Nothing further of note took place until just before November 10, on which day our association representative called inspection, inquiring about the need for permits for a parking lot and emailed an inspector. The new owners gave no notice when the work was to begin. Excavation of the entire length of the lot commenced, eventually to the depth of more than three feet. The digging extended into my neighbor’s property, a wire fence was taken down, and blackberry bushes were torn out. When my neighbor objected to the damage to her property, the new owners did run a string along the property line and ceased digging on her property.

The same (or next) day, our representative went to the property and asked the contractor whether he had a permit. She spoke also with the husband of the owning couple. On Monday, November 14, she spoke with an inspector. The same (or next) day, an inspector went to the property, and told my neighbor that a parking area would not be constructed and that all the removed soil was to be returned.

On Monday, November 14, huge dumpsters were continuously loaded and dirt hauled away. Shortly before noon, I saw the wife of the couple chatting jovially with a policeman at the foot of the driveway. I soon learned that, after the police presence, my neighbor, standing at the verge of her garage, asked the driver of one of the humongous trucks to pull back, so that she could get out. The wife told her that she could not speak to the driver or to any of their workers and announced, while waving papers in my neighbor’s face, that she had a restraining order against her.

Having learned about the restraining order, I went to the police station Tuesday morning to see what I could learn about the police presence on the 14th. A call had been placed to the police, in reference to “harassment.” I was given no details but was assured that such an order had to be issued by a court and that such order was not valid until logged in by the police as having been served. No order had yet been served.

All Tuesday the 15th, a steady stream of dump trucks arrived, returning the dirt that they had hauled away on Monday. Trucks idled in the street, while waiting to deliver the dirt. Other construction trucks were parked at the curb, blocking fully or partially access to the fire hydrant. By Wednesday, construction had ceased.

In retrospect, my neighbor wrote: “I still think it’s amazing that I asked [our neighborhood rep] for help in the first place when there was none.”

My takeaway: please always be alert to the needs of your neighbors, especially the elderly and those most vulnerable to abuse.

What relevance has this sordid tale to the greater community? Far more than meets the eye. At the simplest level, this episode resonates with the ever-growing list of neighborhoods subjected to the greed fed by the “cash cow” of student rentals. Family homes are increasingly bought by investors and converted into rentals. It is obvious that the loss of family housing in town is a threat to the town’s tax base, schools, and down-town business district. And then there’s the matter of increased demands on the underfunded police and inspections departments.

But the deeper significance of this tale lies barely below the surface. The unconscionable couple in this story owns several LLCs in the state and cannot be ignorant of property law.

It is heartening that some town councilors have expressed concern about the number of single-family homes being bought up by investors and about low morale among underpaid town police and staff. Yet, given the stark divergence between public self-representation and what occurs outside public view as demonstrated by the situation in my neighborhood, it is crucial that town citizens not rely on their leaders’ proclamations, but look behind the veil to discern what differences exist between words and deeds, what acts are taken which bely those words, and who benefits. A heavy lift on already overburdened homeowners.

The formation of neighborhood associations, as in my neighborhood, can ease the burden. And we can all look in on our neighbors, check for their well-being, and whether they feel helpless when threatened.

Marilyn Smith

Marilyn Smith is a resident of Amherst.

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1 thought on “Letter: What Neighbors Can Do. Reflections On A Home Conversion To Student Rental Gone Bad

  1. Thanks for writing this letter. I think it intersects well with a letter I have written and is posted here. A neighborhood association is a positive step toward stopping abuse, but far more proactive and aggressive actions will need to be taken to stop invasive developers from extracting the wealth of our community and diminishing the quality and diversity of our neighborhood. We need more support from our government, but we also need to proactively create the currently non existing vehicles for regaining agency and control of our community, where public benefit supersedes private profit making. Simply put, we (the people who live and work here) need to build and own the land and the buildings that make up our community. Keeping the wealth in the community and widely shared across the community.

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