AUBURN — The school system has so far spent more than $20,500 in legal fees fighting over a strip of land that’s valued at less than $15,000.

Now the battle may be heading to court, where the school system could have to fight against a claim for $100,000.

For the past year, the Auburn School Department and the nonprofit East Auburn Community Unit have been quarreling over a 30- by 500-foot piece of land next to East Auburn Community School. The school has been using the strip as part of its parking lot and bus turnaround for about 15 years, ever since the unit donated acres of land to the school.

But the unit now says that strip of land was never part of its original donation. Both sides thought it was until last summer, when Unit Treasurer Alan Whitman looked up the boundary lines during the school’s parking lot renovations. Whitman has said the land belongs to the ball field next door, which the unit owns.

Although Whitman notified the school system that it didn’t own the strip of land last summer, School Department officials decided to keep going with the parking lot renovation. They also continued to allow teachers to park there during the school year, even after saying they would stop.

“This is a case of, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ in a sense,” said the unit’s lawyer, Charles Gilbert III. “All of the land that the school district had was a gift, and basically the claim here is, ‘You didn’t give us a big enough gift.'”


School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall has said the elementary school doesn’t need the land because teachers can park elsewhere and buses can drop off students at another part of the building. But, he said, the strip does make those things more convenient.

The fight came to a head in February, when the unit told the school system that it would block all access to the land if the issue wasn’t resolved. After that, the school system stopped teachers from parking there and hired a law firm to negotiate for the property. 

The two sides have been negotiating since early spring.

Gilbert, the unit’s lawyer, declined to talk about the specifics of the negotiations. However, Kendall said the School Department offered to buy the land from the unit for about $14,000 or to trade a piece of land that was the same size but bordering the unit’s ball field on another side. The unit said no to those offers, Kendall said.

He said the School Department most recently offered to give the unit 5-plus acres nearby in exchange for the 500-foot strip — a trade Whitman has said he wanted since negotiations began. However, School Committee members wanted an easement to maintain public access over those 5-plus acres.

The unit said no, according to Kendall. 


The school system has paid its lawyers $20,560 to negotiate for the land since spring. The land’s contributory value — the value it adds to the whole school property — has been placed at about $14,500 with the improvements the school system made.

Kendall said the disagreement could have been resolved with the 5-acre swap, but the school system doesn’t want to give up that much public land without
maintaining public access to it.

He believes the strip of parking lot at the East Auburn Community School is worth fighting for.

“The expenditure of public funds to defend a public interest is appropriate,” he said in an email.

Kendall also believes the school system would win in court. While Whitman has said the deed and boundary lines clearly show the land belongs to the unit, Kendall said the deed is wrong and the unit always intended that strip to go to the school system.

Kendall cited a 1998 letter from Whitman’s father, Arthur Whitman, to the Auburn city manager at the time. In it, Kendall said, Arthur Whitman referenced a unanimous vote by unit members who agreed to sell their community center and the adjacent paved parking area so the city could create a school in East Auburn.


“The original intent of Arthur Whitman was that all the property in question would be gifted to the city/school,” Kendall said.

The school system may get its day in court. Gilbert has officially notified the school system that the unit may file suit, claiming the school system has been trespassing on the property and has damaged the land by cutting down trees, putting up lights and paving the area without authorization.

The notice puts the damages at $100,000.

Superintendent Katy Grondin said that claim will go to the school system’s insurance company, which will investigate. The insurer could resolve that trespass and damage claim based on its investigation.

But the land remains in dispute. With school starting in a few weeks, the East Auburn Community School plans to let teachers park in the lot again and to direct buses through the turnaround.

“We intend to use what we believe is our property,” Kendall said.


That could change, Kendall said, if the school system’s lawyers advise against it. The School Committee next meets Aug. 17.  

Gilbert wouldn’t comment on the specifics of future negotiations, but he believes both sides could benefit from talking to each other again.

“Every party that’s involved in a dispute, it behooves them to at least try to talk to the other side and see if there’s some common ground,” Gilbert said. “So far, at least, there hasn’t been common ground. But hopefully, maybe, either with or without litigation, we can get there.”

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