Two women poked their heads into the squat yellow cottage on East Lakeshore Drive on a brisk Saturday in April, wondering aloud whether anyone was home.
She was there, owner Peggy Potter assured them from the back of the house. There wasn’t much left to pick through, she remarked apologetically, returning to a bottle of Windex and a dusty wad of paper towels. The guests scanned the array of teapots and books covering the bare mattress in the corner, marveled at the view of Malletts Bay and left empty-handed.
The pattern continued for some time, visitors offering sympathetic glances as they quietly stepped through the practically empty site. Occasionally, one would offer Potter condolences and ask how exactly it could be that 25 homeowners were forced to pack up and leave their houses behind. By the time the two-day yard sale concluded, Potter and dozens of other homeowners along the bustling stretch of Colchester acreage said they had developed a script of sorts to answer that question.
It had been nine months since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Mongeon Bay Properties LLC could void a land lease set to expire in 2036 and evict the owners of 28 summer and year-round homes from their lakefront properties.
The residents, all part of the Malletts Bay Homeowners Association, each held the deed to at least one structure in an eclectic neighborhood but had no legal ownership of the ground beneath them. The Mongeon family has owned that seven-acre plot – which stretches along both sides of East Lakeshore Drive, Lone Birch Street and up Williams Road – since the 1920s.
When Tropical Storm Irene swept the region in 2011, the banks of four camps on the lakeside suffered. Mongeon Bay, led by Bruce Mongeon, eventually took the association to court, claiming their repairs did not satisfy the terms of the lease. He demanded they leave. A judge in the lower court agreed and ordered the MBHA to pay $135,000 for a new retaining wall along the bay and to cover Mongeon’s legal fees, but allowed them to stay in their homes.
On appeal, Vermont Supreme Court justices said the failing embankment was grounds for termination of the lease. The homeowners were ordered out by April 30.
The lease requires association members to completely remove their homes from the land at its conclusion, a date now moved dramatically closer. Any structures that aren’t demolished are considered abandoned and can be repossessed by the landlord. Several homeowners say Mongeon offered between $4,500 and $5,000 to buy them out. With just days to go before the deadline, many were still unsure which option to take.
The end of the month marks the close of a highly visible and lengthy legal proceeding, but interviews with more than a dozen homeowners conducted over the past month suggest the feud with the Mongeon clan started long before the flood six years ago.
And a unique case entered into Vermont Superior Court last month may mean the story of the quirky community by the bay isn’t over just yet.
Seventy-three-year-old Allen Kieslich does not call his place on East Lakeshore Drive a “cottage.” The rustic Camp Kildare, covered in multi-colored shingles, was likely a late 19th century construction, he said, making it one of the oldest on the bay.
Since Kieslich’s childhood years, his camp has enjoyed some modern upgrades but maintains the summertime feel, sporting an outdoor shower and plethora of vintage family furniture. The retired man and his wife were at their year-round Florida home in 2011 when their daughter, a Colchester resident, called and relayed news of Irene’s carnage.
Kieslich said the “perfect combination of storms” left quite a mark on the old camp, but still believes more than just a retaining wall was needed to prevent the damage beneath it. Mongeon Bay’s subsequent lawsuit, Kieslich recalled, first named more than a dozen violations, the erosion counting as just one complaint. Other homeowners confirmed Mongeon presented the court with photos of garbage and cars with missing license plates on the property.
They said the judge threw out every grievance except the water damage, which he said constituted more than “normal wear and tear.” Kieslich thought the lower court’s order to build a retaining wall was a fair compromise, and believed the matter was all but settled.
The homeowners held a special meeting to collect the money for the wall and legal fees, each resident scraping together $7,000. The cash was quickly returned after the Supreme Court handed down its decision.
The high court said the prior judgment erred in suggesting the lease violation was exempt from the clearly stated option to evict the tenants.
Kieslich said he remembered his parents walking to a Mongeon house across the street once a year, presenting a $500 check to cover the annual lease fee. The agreement was only verbal, he said.
It’s why he frankly didn’t pay much attention to the later-adopted group lease until about 10 years ago. When the former commercial broker began parsing through the document he was already beholden to, he had to sit down.
“You get very spoiled when you’re on one of these special places,” he said, recalling time spent with his children and grandchildren on the bay.
Potter said she, too, was surprised when the lease specifics became integral. The Waitsfield resident bought her summer camp 35 years ago, bringing up three kids with her husband. Her middle child, musician Grace Potter, was nearly delivered in the cottage.
The young couple was elated at their good fortune when they learned they could own a camp in the middle of the beach. Later, they purchased another place up Lone Birch Street and used it as a rental property.
Through the legal battles, Potter has spoken frequently with Bruce Mongeon, urging him to make concessions. She was one of the first to take him up on his offer for a buyout, promising not to demolish or damage either camp in exchange for $5,000.
“I don’t want to walk away,” Potter said. “[But] I can walk away with nothing, or I can walk away with something.”
Pamela Surprenant moved to a cottage called Shady Pine in the ’80s, two teenage children in tow. The single mother had found the rental climate unwelcoming and was grateful to find a halfway decent spot to settle.
“I became homeless again this year when this whole thing happened,” Surprenant said. “But I moved there because I was homeless.”
When her kids grew up and moved out, Surprenant found herself resistant to leave the community. A friend offered to sell Camp Wanda just up the street, and she jumped at the chance. The cozy blue cottage with bright pink trim was once covered with personalized decorations. On the wall late last month, just one nautical sign remained among the handful of framed family photos.
“Don’t be crabby,” it read. “You’re at the beach.”
Next month, the 73-year-old retiree will make her final mortgage payment on the home just after she’s evicted.
Across the street, Michael Carroll leaned back in his canvas chair, watching solemnly as yard sale goers walked through his house. He nodded disinterestedly when a customer asked if he could take a stack of two-by-fours for a few dollars.
“I feel like the corpse at a wake,” he muttered under his breath.
The 72-year-old builder bought the work-in-progress for just $11,000, moving in after years living with Surprenant, his ex-wife.He’s since opened the floor plan of the old three-bedroom camp. Skylights on the vaulted ceilings let in streams of light, even as drops of rain fell noisily.
Both realized they couldn’t afford a place of their own when the court ordered the eviction last June. Landing on an unusual arrangement, the former spouses have moved back in together, acting as “co-inhabitants” of a South Hero home. In the last few weeks, they’ve frequently returned to their Malletts Bay properties, though, ducking into their own spaces to pack up any remaining odds and ends and chat with other neighbors tasked with the same dismal duty.
When Carroll became an official homeowner in 1999, he was a highly active member of the association. In 2000, he was named president of the board of directors, a title he would hold for the next five years.
Carroll’s tenure marked a dynamic time in the MBHA. According to several residents, the association was formed a few years earlier at the urging of Andy Mongeon, Bruce Mongeon’s father. Previously, each homeowner delivered an individual payment to the family, rather than a lump sum.
Homeowners say Andy Mongeon, who still lives in a home at the edge of the property, even attended the association’s meetings in the beginning, seemingly invested in its success. The family patriarch had amassed the majority of the property from his own relatives by then, Carroll said, and verbally vowed to sell the single plot to the group once it organized.
According to Carroll, the association made several bids for purchase, none to the Mongeons’ satisfaction.
Digging through his storage locker recently, Carroll came across a letter he sent to the Mongeons in the early 2000s, noting the two sides’ latest offers were only $60,000 apart. He had asked them to negotiate the sale price. Propositions like that, Carroll recalled, were usually met with six months of silence.
In the meantime, an estranged and cash-strapped Mongeon relative, Al Belval, offered to sell his share – totaling nearly 44 percent – to the association. Under Carroll’s leadership, the group bought the share in 2001 for more than $300,000. MBHA fees jumped from $120 to $320 a month to cover the purchase.
“It was worth it, because we had an interest now,” Carroll said. “Even if the lease ran out, we were still part owners of the land. We were actually in very good shape.”
But the MBHA’s lawyer convinced the group it needed to own all of the land, including Andy Mongeon’s portion, for homeowners to buy and sell their property with ease. After years of failed negotiations, the lawyer suggested they sue the family to purchase it.
“Like a fool, I said OK,” Carroll said. “So yeah, I regret it. I feel incredibly responsible for the situation that we’re in.”
After a popular vote, the group took the Mongeons to court. A 2008 decision from the Vermont Supreme Court dealt them a devastating blow.
The court upheld a finding that the property could not be fairly divided between the two groups, and agreed the current split “slightly favored” the Mongeons’ interests.
Pointing to a precedent that “disfavors outside parties” in these instances, the court denied MBHA’s request for acquisition and allowed the Mongeon family to purchase Belval’s share back for less than members originally paid, Carroll said.
“That just soured everything,” Carroll said. “What I regret was listening to our attorney the first time around. We should have kept what we had. We really had a pretty good situation.”
When the dust settled, several homeowners say the Mongeons stopped interacting with the association. Soon after, Andy Mongeon handed control of the land over to his children, driving a wedge through the already splintered relationship.
Half a dozen homeowners huddled together on the wooden benches of the Vermont Supreme Court on the afternoon of April 5, faces twisted in apprehension. Any discussion was brief, exchanged in tense, hurried whispers.
Several sets of eyes sporadically darted a few feet across the room, briefly landing on Bruce Mongeon and his attorney, David Greenberg, before flickering back to the bench. The pair sat together, each scribbling notes on a pad of paper. The last time they congregated in this room, an identical panel of justices handed the homeowners a stunning loss.
“I want to make it clear that we’re not here today to argue that Mongeon Bay is not entitled to repossession of this property,” MBHA attorney David Aman said to the five robed judges. “I want the court to consider the gravity of what these folks have to do.”
The homeowners’ appeal had asked the justices to reconsider the April 30 move out date, saying the group needed more time to pack up their lives, decide what to do with their physical structures and discuss weighty financial matters with banks. But Justice Beth Robinson noted their argument requested an extension of years, not months, to delay eviction even until 2036, when the original lease agreement runs out.
Greenberg quickly suggested the appeal added to an already “excessive” litigation process. His client would likely have agreed to an extension, Greenberg reasoned, had a more practical timeframe been presented. Nearby, Mongeon slowly nodded his head.
“This association has known all along that there are deadlines to do things,” Greenberg said. “They are now asking this court to save them from themselves.”
After a pause, his argument changed course. Greenberg pointed the justices to a case recently filed in Vermont Superior Court, where the two-dozen homeowners are suing the MBHA itself, claiming the association’s “numerous and separate acts of negligence proximately caused the termination of the lease.”
“Yeah, I’m essentially suing myself,” Carroll said coolly the next day, hands folded across his chest. “We have insurance, thank God, that indemnifies the board if they screw up. We screwed up.”
The MBHA began carrying an insurance policy when it signed the lease 20 years ago, Carroll said. Court documents show its provider, Hanover Insurance Company, agreed to defend MBHA against the current suit but referred the case to an independent attorney acting on behalf of the association. That’s when things became complicated.
Board members argued they could not “effectively communicate” and preserve confidentiality with their defense counsel while also acting as plaintiffs. The court agreed, the documents show, and ordered a receiver, or neutral lawyer to act on behalf of, manage and protect the association.
The complaint itself offers a total reversal of facts presented in the suit against Mongeon Bay, admitting fault in matters many of the homeowners continue to adamantly contest verbally. The plaintiffs’ brief says the erosion “was the result of the MBHA’s failure to comply with its duties.” The suit also says the association “should have understood” their repairs “were not sufficient.”
The homeowners are seeking compensatory damages, attorney fees and costs, prejudgment interests and any other court-granted relief. Carroll said he expects the insurance company to “fight like hell,” but wouldn’t rule out the possibility of recuperating big-ticket items, including lost mortgages.
He idly shrugged his shoulders considering the contradictory messages presented in simultaneous legal proceedings.
“That’s the law,” Carroll said with a smirk. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Issued on Monday, the high court’s latest decision offered the group a slight, if belated, reprieve. A majority agreed the trial court underestimated its own authority to extend the move-out deadline. But the bench wrote it was difficult to imagine a scenario that granted the homeowners more than six more months and said no additional hearings would be required if the lower court decided to order a delay.
Bruce Mongeon denied The Sun’s interview request, but offered a short statement after the justices filed out of the courtroom earlier this month.
“This is a tragedy, it is,” Mongeon said. “There’s no doubt about it. That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about it.”
Before the eviction sale, the last unofficial gathering of the MBHA was far more cheerful. Neighbors, coworkers, friends and strangers alike packed in to James Mix’s lakeside cabin on April Fools Day, kept off the beach by frigid temperatures.
Discussions of mortgage payments and lawyers’ opinions peppered the evening’s conversation, rising above the pleasant chatter of vacation plans and recipe ideas. Along the back porch, bottles of champagne stood like soldiers, covered in shiny purple foil. Readied for a toast, guests said, to the end of an era.
Mix, a salesman, is moving with his wife and beloved dog to a place in Essex. Before he goes, he said he’s paying $13,000 to demolish his own waterfront home and his rental property next door.
“The idea that nice people will rent this place and not know the history is, to me, more of an affront than the eviction,” Mix said. “What I’ve always loved about this area of Colchester is that the wealth thing hadn’t crept in quite as badly yet. This was an anomaly.”
Susan Willard agreed. The homeowner works full-time for Pomerleau Real Estate and hosts a young adult in her home through a Howard Center program. A Burlington native, she spent summer vacations on the bay. She tried to claim a piece of the lake for her own when it came time to buy a house. Willard planned to support herself by renting the place out in summers. Now, she’s headed to a house in Burlington with her fiancé, leaving behind the view she loved and carrying an unpaid mortgage with her.
“It’s just really hard to give that up,” Willard said. “I thought I’d have that forever.”
She came to Mix’s party hoping to confer about remaining mortgages, saying her bank was staying tight-lipped about the path forward after the eviction. Most homeowners believe Bruce Mongeon will turn the cottages into weekly rental properties. As Mix pointed out, zoning will likely make it difficult to recoup the demolished homes’ values.
Letters sent to Mongeon earlier this month by the Colchester planning and zoning department detail the criteria needed to build new homes on empty lots. To be grandfathered into old zoning, any rebuilding must take place within a year of demolition and be constrained to the buildings’ footprints, planning director Sarah Hadd said. Town records show most of the homes on Mongeon land date back to 1900, more than 50 years before Colchester implemented any zoning regulations.
Theoretically, if each of the 28 homes was destroyed and not rebuilt within a year, current rules dictate Mongeon could build only 13 homes on the non-lakeside property and exactly zero on the waterfront, Hadd said. Many homeowners, though, said demolition isn’t an option. Some, like Willard, can’t spring for the fee because of financial constraints. Others, like Surprenant, say the emotional toll would be too much to handle.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Surprenant said. “I couldn’t do it to this sweet little house.”
Mix understands why some call his decision vindictive, but said he couldn’t live with himself if he handed his houses over. Asked why he hosted the party, Mix stopped and surveyed the scene, blinking back tears.
“For them,” he said. “As weird as it sounds, I felt like I owe it to here. It’s been a cool place. Jesus, it’s a fairytale, that view.”
Nikki Builta-Paradise recalled an oft-repeated witticism as she looked out her front window across the street. The view from her front porch would be a lot better, she joked, if the houses across the way didn’t obstruct the water.
“I fear in two weeks I’m going to be able to look across … and it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever looked at,” she said.
Builta-Paradise and her wife, Jessie, thought the legal battle was settled last summer. Prepared to pony up their share for a new retaining wall, they’d turned their attention across the road and upward: the roof needed replacing. Their plans were halted in dramatic fashion when a neighbor came screaming across the lawn with foreboding news from the Vermont Supreme Court.
“Don’t start,” Builta-Paradise remembers the neighbor saying. “We’re about to lose everything.”
Months later, she arrived home after clocking a 72-hour shift in her job as a crisis clinician. As she stood in the kitchen, the pounding rain busted through the never-repaired roof, pooling beside her.
“It’s like the house is crying,” she said. “It’s given up. Even it knows it’s going to be coming down.”
The couple decided to demolish the place Builta-Paradise has called home for almost four decades, rebuffing Mongeon’s small buyout offer. They’ll salvage most of the architectural elements before relocating to another Colchester home in the coming weeks.
“I couldn’t think of somebody else coming down the stairs,” she said. “I couldn’t think of someone else being where my hand prints are in the cement somewhere.”
The 38-year-old can chronicle her entire life inside the four walls on East Lakeshore Drive. In the 1970s, her mother spent childhood summers in a lakeside camp, her father his last year of high school in a year-round house across the road. The pair met on the beach as teenagers one summer and married shortly afterward. They lived with his parents until Builta-Paradise was born, then bought the place next door.
Never wealthy, Builta-Paradise’s parents invested years of sweat equity improving the home. They hand-dug a basement with buckets, she said, and wrapped the entry with plastic to keep the winter out of a place meant for summer.
When they wanted to sell eight years ago, Builta-Paradise asked them to consider renting to her instead. She went on to marry Jessie on the same segment of beach where her parents met. Together, they’re raising 15-year-old daughter, Paige. The irony of the hyphenated last name is not lost on the family.
“It’s always been here for our parents, and it’s always been here for us when we struggled financially,” Builta-Paradise said. “We had nothing, but we had this house.”
Every square inch of the property seems to prompt an anecdote. A neighbor’s fence reminds Builta-Paradise of the tumble her sister took down the Lone Birch hill, the summersault resulting in two broken wrists. A house on the same road was the site of her first babysitting gig, one she narrowly escaped before a raucous thunderstorm sent a tree crashing through the ceiling.
Then there’s the sprawling stain on the wooden ceiling, the ring left from a dripping cup of sticky Kool-Aid a young Builta-Paradise left resting on the pine slabs before her dad got the chance to nail them up. The well-kept memories include trips to pay the rent, too. Builta-Paradise and her mother walked across the lawn to deliver a check to two Mongeon sisters monthly. Her parents helped form the association, she said, and covered dues when their neighbors struggled.
It’s part of the reason Builta-Paradise said they’re so agitated by outsiders who blame them for signing a risky lease. The legal formalities were agreed upon long after her family had made a life on the land, she noted. The yard sale was crippling at times, Builta-Paradise mused with a dejected laugh. As she fielded offers on items that were not for the taking, she was horrified to catch glimpses of her neighbors’ belongings driving away in foreign cars.
“I saw the chairs come out of the Provost house … It was so uncomfortable to experience,” Builta-Paradise said. “Summer, to me, means the Provosts coming home.”
Karen Bedell is not used to seeing the bay in winter. Looking out the sliding glass door at the sheets of cloudy ice earlier this month, she recalled the unfamiliar feeling of dread that morning as she and her husband drove to camp from their New Hampshire home.
Bedell’s mother, Margaret Provost, died last October in the midst of the eviction saga, leaving behind Gene, her husband of 64 years. Bedell’s parents owned the two-story brown summerhouse with red shutters for more than half a century, constantly traveling to and from their home in Northfield for an instant vacation. Weeks earlier, Bedell watched her father carefully pack his late wife’s summer clothes into boxes and trash bags and silently observe a garbage truck take them away.
“I’m a Christian, and I keep talking to my mother and saying help us,” Bedell said, her voice catching on a sob. “Help us do something.”
The 63-year-old has spent nearly every summer of her life in the house by the bay, taking in each brilliant sunset with a massive extended family. Her brother, Mark, owns the camp next door, connected to hers with an elaborate deck. She remembers darting up the road, pajama-clad, to visit cousins staying across the street and waiting for water to heat up on the stove for a bath.
The place also hosted the association’s annual meetings, a tradition Bedell said she never understood until becoming a member herself. In need of cash, the elder Provosts considered selling their spot seven years ago, but Bedell’s son, Ryan, didn’t want to see the family camp go. He’d proposed to his wife on the back deck and almost welcomed his first born on the property when she suddenly went into labor right before their annual July 4 party two years ago, Bedell said, recounting the dramatic tale through laughter.
Ryan offered to purchase the place from his grandparents, promising to let them continue using it just as they always had. But the bank wouldn’t provide financing for a seasonal property on leased land, Bedell said. Undeterred, she and her husband, Chuck, offered to remortgage their home in New Hampshire and loan their son the necessary funds.
Less than a decade later, they still owe six-figures on the property they’re now considering demolishing. To top it off, they’d already installed an expensive concrete retaining wall along their segment of beach – a fixture Mongeon’s lawsuit demanded grace each lakefront property.
“We are so afraid, and we don’t know what to do,” Bedell said, clutching a folded tissue. “I feel like I’m going to throw up. I don’t know what direction we’re headed in.”
Bedell and her brother discussed leaving their homes standing, removing any valuable pieces beforehand. But the siblings are frightened by Bruce Mongeon’s threat to sue any homeowners that leave their houses inhabitable, despite assurances from some lawyers the claim has no legal standing.
Ryan wrote a letter to Bruce Mongeon, pleading for a lease extension. Bedell said he told them the decision was a business deal and asked them to keep their emotions out of it. A $1 million offer from the nine lakefront homeowners to purchase the thin strip of land beneath their camps was also rejected, Bedell said. The family said Mongeon then offered a temporary summer lease for $1,200 a week, a hefty sum they couldn’t pay after losing their previous investment.
Gene Provost had long considered Andy Mongeon a friend, Bedell said, and approached him one day after church last summer, asking to talk things out. He agreed, and they set up a time to meet later that afternoon. Bedell said Bruce Mongeon subsequently approached her parents on their front porch and called off the get-together, warning them to stay away from his father. Bedell doesn’t think her father ever paid much attention to the intricacies of the lease, never dreaming the matter would come to this fiery conflict.
“[The Mongeons] were summer friends. They did so many of the agreements right on the front porch with a handshake, a Vermont handshake,” Bedell said. “That’s what my father can’t understand, how this man could do this to them.”
Looking around the messy living room, Bedell said she barely recognized the place where she’d always found comfort.
“It was such a blessing to wake up every morning and sit and have coffee with your parents at 80-something years old,” Bedell said, crying. “I know he can’t take that away from us, but I just wanted more of it. I just wanted more.”