Man's proposal to build on 53-acre track on Meredith Neck stirs up some old bones

MEREDITH — Within weeks of purchasing property on Meredith Neck, Ron Coburn has found his dream of building a lakefront home haunted by the spectres of prior plans for the 53-acre tract, which came to grief at the hands of neighboring homeowners and pressure of economic recession.

The rectangular property, with for a small panhandle at its northwest corner with 350 feet of shoreline facing Stonedam Island, lies on the west side of the peninsula. There is a four-bedroom farmhouse, built in 1929, and 1,800-square foot barn on the property. Along with the 53 acres, Coburn also acquired a 1.9 lot with a three-bedroom cape built in 1977, the only lot ever sold in 21-unit subdivision of the larger property approved in 1974. The house lot is reached by a private "driveway," a quarter-mile long, known by residents and designated on maps as Cushing Road, which is unimproved.

Coburn paid $1-million for the 53-acres and another $425,00 for the house lot and home built near the center of the tract.

Coburn's property lies within a loop of roads lining the tip of Meredith Neck — Cattle Landing Road to the east and south, Harris Road to the southwest and Happy Homes Road to the northwest. But, the loop is not complete. After leaving Meredith Neck Road, Happy Homes Road, a narrow, gravel track, wends westward then bends southward, crossing Coburn's property to form the panhandle, before coming to a dead end. Originally laid out as a public right-of-way in 1926, Happy Homes Road has never been extended to join Harris Road, the paved stretch of which runs northward from the end of Cattle Landing Road for a tenth of a mile before becoming an unpaved track. This break in the loop blocks the flow of through traffic around the tip of the neck, which is just the way the property owners like it.

This week Coburn, represented by attorney Jack McCormack, approached the Board of Selectmen at a workshop with a proposal to subdivide his 53-acres into two lots, the panhandle of five acres where he would build a home on the water and the remainder,of 48 acres where the farmhouse and barn would either be restored or replaced. The existing house lot would remain. He proposed accessing the lots from the completed portion of Happy Homes Road and asked the board to discontinue the remaining length of the public right-of way encumbering his property. Authority over town roads is vested in the Board of Selectmen.

Community Development Director John Edgar recalled the troubled history of the property, explaining that proposed subdivisions in 1974, 1980 and 2007 were all abandoned. The most recent, Harris Cove Estates, consisting of 13 lots, included developing the public right-of-way to link Happy Homes Road and Harris Road, roused the ire of residents of both roads as well those with homes on Cattle Landing Road. All were opposed to closing the loop, which would open the tip of the neck to through traffic, or as Selectman Herb Vadney put it "tour buses of full leaf peepers."

McCormack the board that Coburn intended "to provide some stability to the property," noting that Happy Homes Road would provide better access than Cushing Road, which intersects Meredith Neck Road at the dangerous junction where it bends at a right angle to become Cattle Landing Road. Discontinuing the public right-of-way, he said, would eliminate the risk of intensive development of the property.

Selectman Lou Kahn, who along with his colleagues Vadney and Peter Brothers served on the Planning Board that considered the last proposed subdivision, recalled that then neighbors "turned out with torches and pitchforks" and said that they would not accept more traffic — "none ever!" In return for discontinuing the right-of-way, he suggested that Coburn undertake to ensure that the property would never be further subdivided, to foreclose the prospect of further development and additional traffic. "If you want help from us, you have to help us by really stabilizing the property," he said.

McCormack called Kahn's suggestion "not proper, not realistic," prompting Kahn to repeat "you're asking us to help you, but you're not helping us."

Vadney agreed "something has to be done out there", while Brothers told Coburn he "must be very, very mindful of the history."

"The last person in here pays the price," McCormack remarked, telling the board "I have never had a board seek assurances about the future." He said that neither he nor Coburn were aware of the history of the property.

Kahn wondered why proposals of this kind seem to be presented between December and March, when most waterfront residents are out of town, and insisted that no understandings be reached or actions taken without hearing from nearby property owners.

"I want to build a house on the lake," Coburn said, noting that he anticipated a lengthy planning and permitting process. "What I don't need," he added, is a second battle over what happened years ago." He referred to Kahn's suggestion as "bait and switch" and repeated that he would not place restrictions on the future of the property. "I'll be dead," he remarked.

"So will I," Kahn replied, "but the town will still be alive."