January 8, 2013

China family given two weeks to sell condemned property

Judith Farris, 70, wants to sell lot to neighbor, but title problems may delay sale

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- A family living in a home that's been declared dangerous by the town of China has two weeks to let the Superior Court know if they are able to sell the property.

click image to enlarge

Judith Farris, left, and her daughter, Becky Ratcliff, may be moving from their China home, if the town carries an order to raze the trailer and outbuilding.

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

After that, Justice Michaela Murphy said, she'll issue a decision that could force them to move.

"This is somewhat of an unusual procedure," Murphy said during a hearing Tuesday at Kennebec County Superior Court. "You don't see this a lot in Superior Court. I just want to make sure other alternatives have been explored."

China Code Enforcement Officer Scott Pierz described why the town feels the three buildings on the property should be vacated and demolished. Property owner Judith Farris, 70, and her son-in-law, Larry Ratcliff, told their side of the story Tuesday and explained that they are attempting to sell the property to a neighbor.

Farris, who had no attorney with her in court, said she wants the family -- which includes Ratcliff, her daughter Becky and two grandsons, ages 19 and 17 -- to stay together.

"My daughter and son-in-law help me get to the doctor," Farris said. "I have this problem with my left side. (Becky) doesn't want me to be by myself."

But the sale is not likely to happen quickly, because Farris needs to get permission from probate court to sell the property. That's because a will stipulates that while Farris owns 51 percent of the property, the rest is owned by Stephen Thibodeau, the son of her former partner, Donald Thibodeau. The will states that neither can sell the property while the other one is living.

Farris and Thibodeau filed court documents on Dec. 10 to modify those terms so they can sell the property for $10,000 to neighbors Robert and Joyce Williams. A hearing has yet to be scheduled in the matter, according to the court.

Murphy said she wants to allow some time for the sale to be completed, at least in part because the town might be able to save money if the new owners are responsible for removing the dangerous buildings.

"Mrs. Farris, you have until the 22nd of January to let the court know if it's going to be sold," she said. "If not, I will issue an order fairly quickly."

The town, which has had complaints about the property over the past several years, took action in August to declare the buildings dangerous and ordered Farris and her family to move. When they did not, the town took the issue to court.

On Tuesday, Pierz described the conditions he found in May in three buildings on the half-acre property on Fire Road 60, a camp road that leads to China Lake. In a mobile home occupied by Farris and her two grandsons, Pierz said, he found holes in the floor and ceiling, missing Sheetrock near the bathroom tub, black mold and significant water damage to the floor around the toilet.

At the time, there was no running water in the mobile home. He said that during other visits, there was a strong odor of ammonia and signs of pet feces and pet urine from dogs and cats.

An outdoor fuel tank is showing signs of deterioration and ice is building up under the home where water is leaking, he said. He described a small garage on the property as dilapidated, noting a sagging, mossy roof, rotting sills and a buckling wall. The 10-foot-by-12-foot "guest cottage," which is occupied by Becky and Larry Ratcliff, has no water source, no chimney, no furnace and no electrical panel, Pierz said.

In response, Ratcliff told the court that many of the problems discovered in May have been repaired. He said the roof no longer leaks, he removed the hot water heater and the holes in the ceiling and floor have been patched. He said the line running from the mobile home to the shed where he sleeps is a cable line, not electricity, and that the shed has its own electricity.

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