Additional reporting by COURTNEY LAMDIN
The town of Georgia has been ordered to pay John Rhodes $232,800 in a case that has taken more than a decade and has twice reached the Vermont Supreme Court, a judge ruled last week.
Georgia’s Selectboard met Monday night with town attorneys and its insurance carrier, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. After four hours, there’s no clear path, Town Administrator Deb Woodward said, noting she couldn’t say much more.
“There’s still questions and concerns that the board has, the legal team has, and there are options and alternatives for both sides to explore,” Woodward said. “We know citizens have questions, and there will be a statement made by the Selectboard when we’re allowed.”
The case stems from Rhodes’ efforts to develop 209 acres of his family’s farm. He alleges for years, the town frustrated his attempts to develop the land by refusing to reclassify one of two possible access roads from a recreation trail it said could not be upgraded.
The case’s complex and labyrinthine history inspired Judge Dennis Pearson to compare it to the Charles Dickens’ novel “Bleak House.”
In 2012 the Vermont Supreme Court cut through that history with a sharply worded ruling in Rhodes’ favor. The VSC concluded the town had violated Rhodes’ rights under the Vermont Constitution.
Title I, Article 7, known as the Common Benefits Clause, requires “fair and impartial decision making.” The town’s actions were “the result of a relentless bias against Rhodes and favoritism toward neighbors,” Justice Marilyn Skoglund wrote for the majority.
However, the court vacated an $830,000 damage award issued by Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph, finding the amount wasn’t clearly connected to the actual harm caused by the town’s actions.
The case was returned to the Franklin County Superior Court for reconsideration. Pearson heard two days of testimony in August.
Rhodes was seeking to upgrade the road so he could develop 209 acres off of Georgia Shore Road. His plans included 12 to 15 houses and possibly a golf course.
But the town blocked his attempt to upgrade either of two roads near the property, to another family’s benefit – the Bechards own property at the intersection of Town Highway #20 and the so-called Unnamed Highway, a fact cited in several court cases.
After multiple court losses, the town agreed in 2010 to allow Rhodes to upgrade Highway #20, Pearson found.
The action was only “a sop, a fig leaf really, to make it look like the town was finally attempting to appear reasonable and cooperative, knowing full well it would be more expensive and cumbersome than upgrading the ‘Unnamed Highway’,” he wrote.
Pearson awarded Rhodes $120,000 in damages for emotional distress, describing the case as “a dull but constant toothache” to Rhodes.
“He is legitimately resentful of the town’s ability to use the court system … as a means of further and continued delay” to develop his land, the judge said, noting Rhodes is “mentally and emotionally fatigued.”
Pearson also awarded Rhodes $112,800 to upgrade the Unnamed Highway. Rhodes had originally sought to develop it in 2006; it represents the cost of building then versus next year.
Rhodes is also entitled to attorney’s fees, but Pearson found the presented amounts were inadequate and ordered Rhodes’ attorneys provide him with a clearer accounting of the fees.
Pearson ruled the Unnamed Highway be named a Class 4 road.
“Such equitable relief is necessary here in order to put John Rhodes in essentially the same position he would have had but for the town’s discriminatory and unethical conduct,” Pearson wrote.
In addition, Pearson ruled the town may only apply the 2007/2008 road standards to future upgrades of the road to “preempt and forestall any further mischief.”
The decision will allow Rhodes to proceed with his development plans, should he choose to do so. Rhodes is 79 now, nearly 20 years older than he was when he first began seeking to develop the lands remaining from his family’s farm.
Woodward said the Selectboard plans to meet with its legal and insurance team again at another special meeting, time and date to be determined.
“We’re grateful this brings us to a final resolution,” Woodward said. “We’re trying to find our ways through the weeds and into the daylight again.”