After nearly a year, the Town of Cape Elizabeth still has an open lawsuit against The Lumbery — a small business located in the center of town on Route 77 that sells locally-sourced wood, garden beds, and tools — and it’s owner, Mike Friedland.
A Town Council meeting held earlier this week ended without any further action being taken to end the legal battle.
Earlier this summer, the Council voted to direct the town attorney to pursue a court-approved settlement with The Lumbery, but Friedland and other concerned residents want to see the lawsuit dropped outright.
The lawsuit — which was filed last October — alleged that The Lumbery was in noncompliance with the town’s zoning and sign ordinances.
The Town accused Friedland and The Lumbery of “encroaching well beyond their approved site plan by storing several pallets of firewood, picnic tables, stacks of lumber, and other items in the front of [the business.]”
Although the approved site plan for The Lumbery allows for “minimal outside storage of materials in areas defined in the site plan,” the Town argued that Friedland’s displays do not fall under these criteria.
Cape Elizabeth also accused Friedland of “placing a sign in the front of [the Lumbery] without submitting the information necessary for a complete sign permit application.”
Once word of this began to spread throughout the town, roughly 1,200 residents — representing more than 10 percent of the town’s population — came forward and signed a petition supporting The Lumbery and asking the Town Council to drop the lawsuit.
At a Town Council meeting earlier this summer, twenty residents offered public comment in support of The Lumbery, requesting time and time again for the Council to drop the lawsuit.
Some residents concentrated their comments on The Lumbery and the positive impact that the business has had on Cape Elizabeth.
Others spoke to their belief that the Town has become decidedly unfriendly toward small businesses in general.
After more than an hour of public comment and a forty-minute Executive Session, the Council returned with a draft motion directing the town’s lawyer to pursue a “consent decree” with the business.
A “consent decree” is essentially a “settlement agreement” that is “approved by the court.” According the Cornell Law School, a consent agreement is commonly used in situations such as this wherein the government files a lawsuit against a person or company.
At the Town Council meeting Monday, several residents — including Friedland and his business partner — once again offered public comment imploring the Council to drop the lawsuit outright.
Friedland emphasized in his comments how difficult “this whole process” has been on himself and his business, saying that he “would just like it to go away.”
Kate Stewart — the woman who initially began circulating the petition in support of The Lumbery last month — repeatedly implored councilors to “just please drop the lawsuit.”
Several other members of the public came forward to share their personal experiences with The Lumbery, as well as to ask the Town Council to drop the lawsuit.
It was also noted during the meeting that the town’s lawyer is kept on retainer, meaning that the cost to Cape Elizabeth taxpayers is the same whether or not she is providing services to the town. This information was shared by the Town Council in response to citizens’ concerns that the lawsuit against the Lumbery was unnecessarily draining the town’s resources.
The Council then entered into Executive Session to receive an update from the town’s lawyer on the status of the lawsuit.
Government bodies, like town councils and school boards, often use such sessions in order to shield their proceedings from public scrutiny.
When the councilors returned, they did not provide the public with any meaningful additional information, nor did they present a motion to take any further action at this time.
Friedland told to the Maine Wire that upon returning from their Executive Session, the councilors “reported that their lawyer will continue to work with [The Lumbery].” Friedland then noted that he and his partners “have yet to hear from them.”
One Town Councilor, Tim Reiniger spoke with the Maine Wire about his opposition to the lawsuit.
“After reviewing the publicly available information, reviewing the testimony from the public, seeing the petition drive, the great interest in promoting a business-friendly community, Reiniger said, “it is my position that the lawsuit should be thrown out.”
“Cape needs to be much more business-friendly. It needs to be more aggressively promoting small business,” Reiniger said.
Reiniger also explained that the overwhelming majority of the Town’s overall tax burden is borne by residential property owners, something that could be corrected by enticing more small businesses to come to the area.
“I’m also very uncomfortable with the appearance of this being a retaliatory lawsuit,” Reinger said, “because the lawsuit was brought 60 days after the owner of The Lumbery expressed public opposition to the planning director…in a letter sent to the Cape Courier.”
“I’m not saying it is, but it’s an appearance,” Reiniger said, noting that the back-and-forth between The Lumbery and the Town had already been going on for “quite a long time.”
Reiniger also said that although The Lumbery in particular is clearly central to the discussion at hand, the conversations happening in Cape Elizabeth right now also point to a series of broader issues that the Lumbery lawsuit encapsulates — most notable among these being what many see as the Town’s non-business-friendly climate.
Friedland told the Maine Wire that he believes Cape Elizabeth residents are offering him such ardent support primarily because they have become “frustrated” with what they are seeing around them.
“The support the Lumbery has received from the community of Cape Elizabeth has been phenomenal, but I do not think it is necessarily because they love our store,” Friedland said. “I think the people of Cape Elizabeth are frustrated.”
“Frustrated by the egregious, ridiculous and absurd nature of the lawsuit against a small business which reflects poorly on the Town of Cape Elizabeth,” Friedland said, “especially following so closely on the heels of the 3 decade long blockade of affordable housing and the inability to set funding aside to repair or replace the aging schools.”
“The people are frustrated by the lack of business development in the Town Center and they are frustrated by the continued backwards bureaucracy, policymaking and personnel that do not have the ability to promote and support local businesses nor the foresight to recognize when things are not working out,” Friedland said.
“They are tired of the Comprehensive Plan being ignored and they are tired of seeing good money go to bad or senseless causes,” Friedland said. “And they are wondering how we got here.”
“Myself and my partners, along with my lawyer, have been tasked with unraveling this mess,” Friedland said. “To this end we have crafted Ordinance amendments and suggested changes to our site plan which we presented to the Town Attorney.”
“The Town of Cape claims to support small businesses but their actions and inactions shout otherwise,” Friedland argued.
“[The councilors] should state unequivocally that they support the Lumbery and all businesses in Cape. That they are dropping the lawsuit immediately and they are undergoing an internal investigation to figure out how they got to this point and what they can do to avoid a situation like this in the future,” he said.
At this point in time, it still remains to be seen how the Town’s lawsuit against Friedland and The Lumbery will ultimately be resolved.
Read Mike Friedland’s Full Statement to the Maine Wire
Disclaimer: Tim Reiniger’s comments are an expression of his own individual beliefs. The comments he provided to the Maine Wire are not reflective of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council’s official position on the matters discussed.