Public works director Bryan Osborne was intrigued when a letter from attorney Jim Wick landed on his desk last December.
A Colchester man was looking to sell his home on Macrae Road, the notice explained, and hired an engineer to survey the plot.
The expert discovered a 1956 agreement on the books, granting the town exclusive rights to enter the land, open a gravel pit and extract the material at just 20 cents per cubic yard, “so long as usable gravel may be obtained therefrom,” it reads.
Current property owner Dean Kent asked the town to release any interest it has in the gravel pit and access road.
Osborne was floored – he estimates the current going rate of gravel is closer to $10 per cubic yard. He said he immediately wondered if the town was sitting on something of significant value.
Then, things took an interesting turn.
“The more we looked into it, the more all that began to unravel so to speak,” Osborne said. “Nobody knows where the gravel area is.”
That mystery extends to Kent, who has owned the property for more than 30 years. In all the time he’s lived there, Kent has seen no activity or gravel removal by the town, according to Wick’s letter.
In fact, the letter says Kent’s not sure if a pit exists at all.
It was Max and Madeline Powell, a husband-wife duo, who entered into the agreement with the town some 60 years ago, Osborne said. The Powell land has since been broken into smaller plots, one belonging to Kent.
That division may have created some of the confusion, Osborne speculates. There’s a chance the theorized pit may be on someone else’s share of the original Powell property.
But the precise location of the pit may not have made a difference. Osborne said soil maps of the general area show no indication of gravel. The town’s planning and zoning department also noted the plot’s R1 zoning would have prohibited the large machinery and construction work needed for gravel extraction.
Then, there was some shaky legal language. The 1956 agreement was to the Powell’s benefit only and did not pass on to any “heirs, successors or assigns.” Osborne said it’s unclear what that wording means for subsequent property owners.
Osborne said he tried one more detective tactic before making his official recommendation to waive the town’s rights: polling longtime town staff members.
“I’ve got a guy in the highway department that’s been here about 47 years. He’s never even heard about this,” Osborne said. “If anything happened there, it must have been very early on in that agreement.”
The selectboard unanimously agreed with Osborne’s suggestion at its Jan. 24 meeting after, somewhat comically, searching for signs of a gravel pit on an aerial map.
The board voted 4-0 to execute a quit claim deed to release any interest the town “may” have in the gravel pit. The motion required Kent to pay for the town’s legal expenses, property transfer and recording fees.
“It seemed like the right thing to do … It doesn’t appear that we could actually use [the rights] even if we had them,” Osborne said, adding the town wouldn’t want to stand in the way of a potential property or development deal without a compelling reason.
Nearly two months after he first learned of it, Osborne said the whole ordeal just exemplifies the quirks of municipal work.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, something else comes through the door,” Osborne said. “This is certainly nothing that I’d seen before.”