AUBURN — For the longest time, the Auburn School Department thought it owned a 30-foot-wide, 500-foot-long strip of land next to the East Auburn Community School.

It doesn’t.

Now the rightful owners — who hadn’t realized they were the rightful owners until last summer — want the school off their property immediately.

The dispute between the Auburn School Department and an East Auburn nonprofit could lead to legal action and an April 1 standoff involving a pile of boulders.

The facts the two sides agree on: About 15 years ago, the East Auburn Community Unit, a decades-old nonprofit, gave the School Department several acres for the East Auburn elementary school. The unit kept the land next door for a ball field.

Everyone thought the 500-foot strip in question was on the school’s side, so for the past 15 years, it’s been used as part of the school’s parking lot. It turns out that strip is actually part of the unit’s next-door property.

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Unit Treasurer Alan Whitman discovered the mistake last summer while the school was repaving and renovating its parking lot. He thought the work, including the installation of lampposts, had gotten too close to the unit’s property line, so he looked up the boundary. Then he measured the unit’s land.

“Behold — it’s right in the parking lot — right where they’re developing,” Whitman said.

He notified Auburn School Department officials. He wasn’t happy with their response.

“They basically said, ‘We’re already committed to this (parking lot renovation), we’ve got to go ahead,'” Whitman said. 

Tom Kendall, head of the Auburn School Committee, acknowledged that school system officials kept going with the parking lot renovations even after Whitman told them the land wasn’t theirs.

“I will say it was over his objection, but his objection was raised way late,” Kendall said. “It was only when he saw some lights that he raised the objection.”

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It’s unclear how much it cost the school system renovate the strip of land it doesn’t own. The lampposts alone — most of which were put on the land in question — cost $15,000. Renovations to the entire parking lot cost $22,000. 

The school finished the parking lot renovations and, when the new school year started, it continued to use the strip of land as it had for years. The two sides started property negotiations.

Kendall said the school system offered to trade a similarly sized piece of land on the school’s eastern border for the parking lot strip, but Whitman said no.

Whitman wanted the 5-plus acres beside the school, a spot that was most recently used for Auburn Land Lab activities but is no longer used for anything.

Kendall called that request “unreasonable.” A 500-foot strip, he said, does not equal a 5-acre parcel.

“That doesn’t seem like a comparable swap,” Kendall said. 

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Whitman believes the two pieces are of equal value, even if one is much larger.

“The (strip of) property we have has A, road frontage and B, was improved with tar,” Whitman said. “They will say, ‘Well, we put new tar down there,’ but there was tar there before.”

Whitman said the city’s assessor told the unit that the strip of land’s contributory value — how much value it adds to the whole property — was about $14,500 with its improvements.

City Assessor Karen Scammon said Thursday that the former Land Lab parcel has an assessed value of $41,900. 

The unit and the School Department have spent months arguing. Whitman said he thought they had a deal for the 5-acre swap a couple of months ago, but the School Committee nixed the plan.

Kendall said committee members didn’t feel the trade was reasonable.

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“It didn’t sit well with the board,” he said.

In January, Kendall wrote a letter to the East Auburn Community Unit apologizing on the School Committee’s behalf for the repaving and renovations that were done on the unit’s property over the summer.

Also in that letter, he said the committee agreed to respect the property boundaries. He said teachers would be advised not to park in that area and the school would immediately turn off the lights until they could be removed.  

He asked for time to remove the dumpster, sheds and fencing that had been put up.

“The board is asking the EACU to bear with us for the remainder of this school year,” he wrote.

But while the lights were shut off, they were not taken down. The dumpster was moved, Kendall said, but teachers continued to park on the property.

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Kendall said the school was planning to let snow block the parking area from cars, but there’s been no snow. He acknowledged that the school could have used traffic cones to block the parking spaces or otherwise required teachers to park elsewhere but did not. 

“The issue didn’t really seem to be very important,” Kendall said. “Let’s not change anything until summer when we can really do it right. And then they came back with their letter.”

In a February letter to the School Department, the unit’s lawyer said the group will “take measures” to block off access to the land on April 1 if the situation is not resolved.

A pile of large rocks was recently moved onto the unit’s property next door, leading Kendall to assume the boulders will soon be used as barriers.

Whitman declined to say anything about the rocks or blocking the property.

“I can’t comment on that,” he said. “I think that we are proceeding with some legal action here and it’s not prudent to comment about everything.”

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Kendall said the elementary school doesn’t really need the land. Teachers can park elsewhere, buses can drop off students at another part of the building and trash can be kept someplace else. But, he said, the strip of land does make all those things more convenient and he’d rather not push the school to make changes mid-year if he doesn’t have to. 

“My belief is all that he wants to do is pressure us,”  Kendall said. “It doesn’t make any sense why this is a big issue. I don’t understand it. I guess the school board doesn’t understand it.”

He’s resisted getting the school system’s lawyers involved.  

“I’m interested in us doing the regular land swap, 30 feet for 30 feet,” Kendall said. “Let’s get it done. Or do a property line boundary agreement. But why do we have to go through all this?” 

Whitman sees the school system’s resistance to his proposal and its refusal to stop using the unit’s property as evidence of a school system gone wrong. 

“The school was gifted some property and they abused the gift and abused the neighborhood that was gifting it to them,” he said.

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