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Winnipesaukee island owner faces fines of $1,000 a day for home expansion

New Hampshire Union Leader and
Sunday News Correspondent

September 09. 2017 10:51PM
Robert Brown's home on Lake Winnipesaukee, after improvements. (William Hemmel/Aerial Photo NH)

MEREDITH - A former marine contractor being held in contempt of court for not tearing down portions of his luxury island home on Lake Winnipesaukee is attracting support from prominent lawmakers in his yearslong battle with the Department of Environmental Services.

Meanwhile, Robert Brown faces fines of $100 a day that will eventually grow to $1,000 a day.

Brown bought Wilcomb Island in 1986, with nothing on it but a one-story camp and two, one-slip boathouses.

Now, his contemporary-style home has three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths equipped with a whirlpool tub and bidet.

DES contends Brown's expansion of the home violates the Fill and Dredge in Wetlands Act.

And on July 26, Belknap Superior Court Judge James O'Neill III ordered Brown to make all the changes to the property agreed to in a consent decree with the state by Aug. 31, or pay penalties of $100 per day between Aug. 31 and Oct. 31; $500 a day between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31; and $1,000 per day after Jan. 1, 2018.

Lakes Region lawmakers intervening on the Wilcomb Island owner's behalf describe the state's approach to the situation as heavy-handed.

"Mr. Brown wants to leave this as a legacy property for his family as we all want to do," said North Country Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield. "State government should be educating, not penalizing."

Officials at the Department of Environmental Services declined to comment and Brown did not return phone messages seeking comment.

At a Sept. 1 meeting with newly appointed DES Commissioner Robert Scott, Brown was accompanied by a legislative delegation consisting of Kenney, state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, and state Rep. Herbert Vadney, R-Meredith - all of them pressing for some immediate settlement.

"I'm very supportive of Mr. Brown and the state coming to a fair resolution," said Kenney. "After nine years it has come to a point in time. There has been no environmental impact or violation of the public trust. This is a misunderstanding between a state agency and Mr. Brown, and it is time to get it resolved and put it behind us."

Kenney believes Brown is being made a scapegoat for numerous shoreline violations by others over the past 50 years that have never been prosecuted, and is being singled out because the island is highly visible.

Robert Brown bought Wilcomb Island in 1986. His home is pictured in 2005. (William Hemmel/Aerial Photo NH)

Giuda in a letter to Commissioner Scott calls the DES handling of the situation "a gross misapplication of the department's mandate."

His plan to remedy the situation calls for Brown to pay for erosion controls on the property, and to amend the deed to reflect that no additional changes to the size of the home can be made except for reconstruction within the existing footprint.

In return, the DES would agree to amend the consent decree to stop all fines immediately, reimburse any fines already collected, and remove any requirement to modify the existing structure.

The case goes back to the fall of 2009, when DES filed a lawsuit against Brown in Belknap County Superior Court, claiming he violated the Fill and Dredge in Wetlands Act when he built a 2,944-square-foot home and attached a two-slip boathouse on the 0.18-acre island. 

The enforcement action wasn't started until three years after construction had been completed.

DES charged Brown with building a new structure and making extensive alterations to a second within wetlands; expanding the footprint of a dwelling over Lake Winnipesaukee; and building a new portion of a dwelling over water, where such a structure had not previously existed, all without state approvals.

The land is valued for tax purposes at $443,100, while the house and outbuildings, which include a two-slip boathouse topped with a roof-top patio, are assessed at $327,000.

In January 2014, weeks before a judge was scheduled to hear the case, both sides negotiated a settlement that called for Brown to pay a $60,000 civil penalty, with $30,000 suspended if he complied with the terms of the agreement.

The agreement called for him to remove all structures over water, other than an approved boathouse.

In April 2014, Senior Assistant Attorney General K. Allen Brooks filed a motion asking a judge to enforce the settlement agreement, claiming Brown was not complying. "He has done nothing and, apparently, intends to do nothing," wrote Brooks. 

In June 2014, Brown's attorney, Peter McGrath, filed a motion to continue, citing his client's medical condition. Brown, then age 70, had recently undergone heart catheterization and had two stents placed as a result of a 99 percent blockage, according to a letter submitted by his physician.

In November 2015, Judge O'Neill granted the state's request for $6,281 in attorney's fees, finding that Brown "prolonged the litigation through vexatious, arbitrary or bad faith conduct." 

Legal wrangling continued over the next two years, leading finally to the July contempt citation.

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