SUMNER — In rural Sumner, there's an old dirt road that winds past a few homes, up a hill and through the woods. It's not pretty, not vehicle-friendly, and is barely passable half the year. Its single saving grace: It connects the area to Redding Road, a paved street that looks like a highway in comparison.
As roads go, Abbott Pond Road isn't especially useful.
But for two years, two families have been fighting over it, a bitter dispute that's escalated from a private spat among neighbors to public arguments and the flashing of a handgun.
Abbott Pond Road runs alongside the Lutz family's home. They say the road is private, theirs, and not open to the public.
The Pothier family lives on Redding Road and owns a small pig and steer farm less than a quarter of a mile down Abbott Pond Road, with an Abbott Pond Road address. They say they have few ways to reach their farm and the one they like most — Abbott Pond Road — is public, or at least the public has the right to use it.
The two sides agree on almost nothing, including what, exactly, happened to turn former friends into enemies so hostile that the police know them by name. But they agree on this: The conflict shows every sign of escalating even further.
In what has become a war over Abbott Pond Road, no one is willing to surrender.
More heated than divorce
Of all the disagreements out there, real estate disputes are particularly bitter, even more than divorce or child custody litigation, said lawyer David Soley. "I guess people like their land more than their spouses."
Soley, who handles real estate litigation for the Bernstein Shur law firm in Portland, wrote the book on real estate disputes, literally. His American Bar Association handbook is used by lawyers across the country.
He believes real estate disputes — over boundaries, easements, rights of way and water access — are particularly heated in New England, though he's not sure why that is. It may have to do with the fact that New England deeds are often old and the 250-year-old surveys that go with them can be unreliable. It may be that Maine and other states in the region tend to have once-cheap farmland that's now worth money and worth fighting over. It may be that more properties here have been in the same family for generations and owners feel attached to them.
Soley handles a dozen to two dozen cases at a time. All are bitter.
"Property is the source of the alleged American dream and people feel entitled to their property and they are, in many cases, entitled to the property," Soley said. "And the cases often are very emotional."
So emotional that Soley and other Maine real estate lawyers tell their clients to call anytime, day or night, should the other side do something to upset them. They'd rather be woken at 3 a.m. than have a client charged with assault.
"Fights are not unusual, and I'm talking about people that are not the type of people you ordinarily expect to get into fights," Soley said. "But there's been, especially over waterfront issues, it's pretty regular that there are brawls."
Abbott Pond Road's families have moved past brawling to brandishing weapons.
Neither side knows exactly how the dispute started. They got along for years — socialized, did odd jobs for each other, counted one another as friends — then something happened.
Nicole Lutz, who has claimed the road as her own, thinks the relationship began to turn sour a couple of years ago when the Pothier family sold her a pig from their farm and, she believes, overcharged her.
"Oh, my god, Hatfields and McCoys," she said. "It started over a pig."
The bad feelings were compounded when runoff from Abbott Pond Road began causing flooding and icing on Redding Road, the road her house fronts. She blamed the Pothier family and others for cutting down too many trees in the woods that surround Abbott Pond Road, and she blamed the Pothiers for damaging Abbott Pond Road with poor plowing.
The Pothiers believe the Lutz family's life was upset when others used the road, and the Pothiers have been blamed for it.
"I sincerely believe that it was four-wheelers that were really the disruption," Richard Pothier said. "It turned into some vicious accusations."
Whatever the reason, the friendship fizzled. The Lutz family said they owned Abbott Pond Road with another abutter and did not want the general public, including the Pothiers, to use it.
The Pothiers, including Richard Pothier's uncle, Ted Dawicki, used it anyway. They claim it's a public road or carries a public easement. At the very least, they said, the road qualifies for a prescriptive easement because the public has been using the road for more than 20 years and should have the right to continue.
Sniping between neighbors quickly turned public. The issue was often brought to selectmen meetings.
"We've been here almost 20 years and I've never seen this kind of acrimony among neighbors," Selectman Mary Ann Haxton said.
In an email sent to every resident on the town's email list, Dawicki accused Haxton of "providing highly inaccurate and misleading information" and putting the town at risk of a lawsuit by telling residents and police that Abbott Pond Road was private. Haxton said she never said that, though she does believe it's a private road.
The situation has been complicated by the fact that the town gave the Pothiers' farm an Abbott Pond Road address and, to comply with 911 rules, posted a street sign on the road. Town officials say neither action means the road is public or, really, any of their business.
The Maine Department of Transportation agrees. It maintains a list of public roads and says Abbott Pond Road is private.
Eventually, Sumner leaders developed a mantra: This is a civil matter. We are not getting involved.
It hasn't helped.
"This town has to realize it's not a civil matter! They need to declare this road what it is," said Linda Pothier, Richard Pothier's wife. "I'm fuming over it. And the Lutzes still have their (no trespassing) sign up there, and, I tell you, I'm ready to take my truck and go knock it down." She paused. "But I have to be a big girl and not do such things."
The Lutz and Pothier families have amassed mounds of evidence to support their respective sides. Nicole Lutz points to, among other things, a survey of her property. The Pothiers point to, among other things, a 2001 letter from a selectman who said the board believed the road was private but that it has been open to the public for at least three decades.
"This is a land theft, a land-grabbing," Richard Pothier said.
They each point to the Lutz family's deed as their proof.
But the dispute hasn't been confined to old surveys and paperwork. Nicole Lutz claimed Dawicki propositioned and sexually harassed her. He adamantly denies the charges.
"I don't know why she would say I offered her money for sex, or whatever," he said.
The Pothiers accuse the Lutz family of blocking Abbott Pond Road.
Nicole Lutz said that's not true.
"I never blocked it," she said. "That one day I parked there and I sat in my car because I was waiting to see if Pothier was going to try to come back after he had spray-painted my grass and spray-painted Abbott Pond Road. I called the cops and I sat out there and waited."
The police have been called so often that Nicole Lutz said she weighs whether whatever is going on is serious enough to get them involved.
It was serious enough one day last October.
A loaded gun
That day, Dawicki drove up Abbott Pond Road to visit his nephew's farm and to change the cameras he set in the woods to take pictures of game. On the way back, Richard Lutz stopped him.
Another argument ensued. In the house, Nicole Lutz picked up the phone, dialed 9 and 1, and stood ready to press another 1. Her adult son appeared in the yard with a long wooden staff.
At some point during the argument, Lutz threw a punch or two at Dawicki through the truck's open window.
And at some point, Dawicki brandished a handgun.
He said he always carries the gun for protection against bears and other wild animals when he goes into the woods. The pistol was still in its holster when he flashed it at Lutz and his stepson as a warning, but it was loaded.
"A bullet can penetrate a sheath," Nicole Lutz said.
Dawicki had a different take on the situation.
"There was NO round in the chamber," he said in an email.
Richard Lutz backed off, though Nicole Lutz said Dawicki tried to run over her husband as he sped away. It's an allegation Dawicki denies.
Back home, each side called the police. Richard Lutz was charged with assault, Dawicki with trespassing. A couple of weeks ago, the Oxford County District Attorney's Office dropped the trespassing charge, saying it had no idea who owned the road. Lutz agreed to a deferred disposition, which means his assault charge goes away if he stays out of trouble for the next year.
Today, muddy and pitted with ruts, Abbott Pond Road is difficult to pass. Pothier walks or takes a four-wheeler when he needs to get to the farm to take care of his animals. He's also spent $8,000 to $9,000 to build his own road. That allows him to bypass Abbott Pond Road, but it's a dirt road, too, and it will take additional permits and thousands of dollars more to expand and improve it.
Pothier has a better idea.
He's going back to using Abbott Pond Road when mud season ends. He believes the dismissed trespassing charge means he officially has that right.
"After that, I'm going for it," he said.
Experts say real estate disputes often have to be settled in court or through mediation because property owners are too close to the situation, too emotional about their land and too easily aggravated by seeing their neighbors every day to settle the argument themselves.
"People tend to take (real estate disputes) personally. Everybody regards their home as their castle," said retired justice and mediator Robert Crowley.
Mediation and the court don't guarantee an end to the fighting. Crowley knows of one Maine court battle over beach rights that has gone on for at least five years. But experts say the earlier a real estate dispute gets to an independent third party, the better.
"The emotional temperature is lower," Crowley said. "The financial investment is lower. The benefit from resolving the case is higher."
But no one in the middle of the Abbott Pond Road dispute will take the case to court. They each say they can't afford it — a court case could easily cost $10,000 or more. And, besides, they each believe they're right and it's up to the other side to take them to court.
"That's up to her. She's the one claiming she owns it," Dawicki said.
"I'm not going to launch that whole process," Nicole Lutz said.
She would like to walk away. But that would be costly, too.
"I'm between a rock and a hard place because where am I going to go?" she said. "I can't support two households. And now, given this blow-up and publicity, nobody in their right mind would buy this house."