PARIS — The former owner of the 103 Main St. property sold two weeks ago to the McLaughlin Foundation says she was misled into the sale.
The foundation, which owns McLaughlin Garden, intends to expand the garden's footprint into the abutting lot, which includes a 19th-century house.
In an interview at her Minot home on Thursday, Koriene Low said she had no idea she was selling to the organization until a few days before the sale closed.
According to documents provided by Low, a purchase and sale agreement she signed with Hunt Acquisitions, a Florida-based company, was transferred without her knowledge to the foundation the day before the sale.
Despite the change in ownership, the sale agreement remained binding, forcing Low to sell the property to the foundation, which she said went against "every grain of my being."
Low's parents, Matti and Etta Mae Korhonen, who owned the property until their deaths in 2009, were close to their neighbor Bernard McLaughlin and Low's children have fond memories of playing in his garden, she said.
The foundation was established in memory of McLaughlin, a former sea captain and self-taught master gardener who established what was widely considered to be the largest private perennial garden on the East Coast. When he died in 1995, he left no provision for the garden in his will, but his son, Richard McLaughlin, continued to tend the garden and kept it open to the public.
He also asserted ownership over all plants and flowers, saying he had a verbal agreement with his father to retain ownership of the vegetation, and announced that he intended to move the plantings to establish his own botanical preserve on his property in Greenwood.
The public outcry was immediate and volunteers created a Save the Flowers Committee to keep the garden intact and in Paris, and to prevent the sale of the property for commercial development.
A group of volunteers organized fundraisers to buy the $200,000 estate, but after a difference of opinion in vision, the members split into two groups and competed to purchase the property.
In April 1997, the group led by Dorothy Zug of Wayne made a successful bid, founding the McLaughlin Foundation. At the time, representatives of the group made a number of public statements critical of Richard McLaughlin's attachment to the property and vowed to seek the return of all plants and flowers he had removed.
Richard McLaughlin was eventually evicted from the property by court order, according to Sun Journal archives.
The controversy surrounding the sale of McLaughlin's property to the foundation soured the Korhonens' relationship with their new neighbor. Low said her parents denied the foundation's requests to sell or donate their property to enlarge the foundation's property, and she was adamantly against selling to the organization.
So when she opened the seller's statement a few days before the sale closed, she was astonished to find she was selling to the nonprofit.
Lee Dassler, an original member of the foundation and the garden's first executive director, said she couldn't remember anything about the foundation's purchase of Bernard McLaughlin's property that raised the ire of the Korhonens.
There were "complications" with the deal but nothing that involved the Korhonens, Dassler said. Foundation members made overtures to them to give right of first refusal for their property, but requests stopped when Etta Mae Korhonen became ill, Dassler said.
In July, Low signed a purchase and sale agreement for the property with Hunt Acquisitions. The real estate company intended to turn the property into a Family Dollar retail store. It submitted an application to the Planning Board in August.
According to Low, the agreement locked her into the sale. To get out of the deal would cost $30,000, in addition to lawyers' fees.
Low said she worried the sale might be at risk after a public hearing on the Family Dollar location was abruptly canceled in late August, amid public opposition to the proposal.
News that Corey Sumner, owner of neighboring Maurice Restaurant, pulled out of a right-of-way agreement with Hunt Acquisitions added to her concern, Low said.
The agreement would have allowed Family Dollar delivery trucks to exit through the restaurant's parking lot.
In an interview Friday, Sumner said patrons, including members of the foundation, expressed concern about the Family Dollar proposal, but he denied he was bullied into backing out of the agreement with Hunt.
With so many of his patrons "dead-set" against the plan, he worried it would affect his business. The impact of the agreement on his property value was also a concern.
Within 72 hours of the August public hearing, he decided the costs of the agreement outweighed the benefits and contacted Hunt to back out of the deal.
"I wasn't about to sign a going-out-of-business right of way," he said. "I made both decisions on my own and on my own behalf," Sumner said.
Without Sumner's right of way, the retail development wasn't workable on her property, Low said. She tried to contact Hunt Acquisitions through her Realtor to see if she could drop the deal. She said the company did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them.
According to documents provided by Low on Sept. 25, her purchase and sale agreement was transferred for $10 from Hunt Acquisitions to HRES Investments 23. The transfer's assignor and assignee was Hamilton Hunt Jr., the company's president.
On Oct. 17, one day before the sale's closing, the purchase agreement was transferred once again — to the McLaughlin Foundation.
Low said the property was finally sold for $327,000, the price agreed upon with Hunt Acquisitions. According to the Paris Town Office, the 2013 municipal assessment for the property is $150,500.
Low said she feels betrayed and angry and believes her "moral integrity" has been compromised as a result of the sale she and her family never intended to make.
In an email Friday, Helga Thurston, chairwoman of the foundation's board of directors, released a prepared statement, but would not answer questions about the sale.
"The South Paris Planning Board meeting on August 13 revealed significant concerns by many elements of the community regarding the specific site selection for Family Dollar's new store," Thurston wrote.
"As an abutter to that property, we were approached by representatives of Family Dollar seeking our thoughts with respect to the suitability of the development which would take place at 103 Main Street. The Foundation is pleased that a solution was found which both honored the seller's contract and provided an opportunity to preserve this unique green space and building."
Contacted at Hunt headquarters Friday, a representative directed questions to Family Dollar.
Bryn Winburn, a Family Dollar spokesperson, said in an email that the company does not disclose the sale price of properties but did not respond to additional questions, including whether the company was pursuing another location for the store in South Paris.