DIXFIELD — Ann Marie Cook and her mother, Jean Louise Cook, purchased a rambling historic brick home on Weld Street in 2017, intending to open a bed and breakfast there. The costs to renovate, heat and maintain the property quickly overwhelmed the pair, and just over a year later, they stopped paying property taxes.

The town of Dixfield has issued four liens on the property since that purchase, according to the Oxford County Registry of Deeds, in 2018, 2019, 2020 and, most recently, on July 7, 2021. The property is now in foreclosure and is one of 13 properties that selectmen will evaluate for possible sale when the board meets on Monday.

The elder Cook died about three years ago, but Ann Marie Cook and her husband still live at the inn and she is challenging any action that the town might take, because she said she had verbal agreements with two previous town managers to make partial tax payments, with the understanding she could retain the property if she paid what she could when she could.

Current Town Manager James McLamb, hired in May, acknowledges Cook corresponded with his predecessors — Carl Puiia and Dustin Starbuck — and offered to make payments. While both managers allowed her grace on the payments, no agreements were ever signed and Cook never followed through to make the offered payments.

According to town records, when Cook purchased the property in February 2017 she paid $3,730 in taxes as part of the sale, but since then has paid just over $1,200 in taxes. The last payment was made in October 2018 for $116.

The outstanding property tax liens filed with the registry total $17,907, and her current outstanding tax bill with the town is $22,326. There is also a lien against the property for $2,256 in bills owed to Fabian Oil Co. in Oakland, according to registry records, and she owes bills to the town for water and sewer.

Cook’s property is among a group of properties that the town has acquired over the past decade, including a property at 25 High St. acquired after a fire there, that amount to just over $80,000 in unpaid taxes.

On Tuesday, McLamb said the town of Dixfield is, “not looking to get into the real estate business” by considering possible sale of any of these properties, but “if we get some of these properties off our hands it will make some money for Dixfield.” He said he is sympathetic to Cook’s financial challenges in operating her business and managing upkeep of the aging building, but “if we can get these properties off the books it could substantially lower taxes next year. How can I look at roughly 2,500 other tax-paying citizens and say it’s okay not to pay your taxes?”

Cook moved to Dixfield from Maynard, Massachusetts, to open and operate her bed and breakfast. She said she had a camp in Livermore, loved Maine and was in contact with a Realtor who sent her the Dixfield listing. “I walked in and just kind of fell in love with the house,” she said, so her mother put her own house on the market and the two bought the Elm Street property two weeks later.

The residence, built in 1881, has 5,460 square feet with five bedrooms, 4½ baths and sits on 1.25 acres of land. It was, Cook said, her dream to operate it as an inn, and she named it Weld Street Inn when she and her family moved in.

“It was a humongous mistake,” Cook said. “One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

After moving in, she and her mother poured $47,000 worth of plumbing into the house and prepped it for guests. She said they struggled to lure visitors to Dixfield, but persevered, taking advantage of what she calls the “historically haunted” reputation of the house to bring ghost hunters for overnights and meals.

“The house never made a lot of money,” she said, and was busiest in the summer, although was never terribly busy.

She said the cost of heating the enormous house shocked them, at nearly $20,000 a year, and, “we worked around the clock just to pay for oil. Two years ago we lost the furnace that heated upstairs, so we lost our upstairs tenant.”

That same year she said she was surprised by a large tax bill and then, when COVID hit, they lost all interest from guests. The home’s second furnace failed last winter and Cook and her husband heated two rooms with ventless heaters, but with no heat in the rest of the house the plumbing ruptured and now it all has to be replaced, she said.

The house currently has no working heat or running water.

Cook acknowledges that, “the town has obviously got all legal rights to the property. The only thing I want is for them to allow me to sell it, pay them off,” and keep the remainder.

Cook and her mother paid $99,900 for the property and Cook estimates she’s spent another $100,000 on upgrades and repairs, and now, “we’re going to walk away with absolutely nothing.”

The town’s current valuation for the property is $175,400, although with a $25,000 Homestead Exemption, its tax value is $150,400.

Asked why the tax payments were not automatically incorporated in the mortgage payments, Cook said she and her mother paid cash for the property, so it was up to them to make the tax payments directly to the town.

“We came from the Boston area. It was a really big house, it looked like a nice house to me,” she said. “We did everything you can imagine to make this work,” but “we’ve had not such a good run of it here,” Cook said, and now when she’s walking around town she said people are heckling her about not paying her taxes, yelling at her that she deserves to lose the property.

In presenting the list of tax-acquired properties to the board for consideration, McLamb, who also serves as town treasurer, is relying on state law and municipal policy on handling statutory foreclosures of tax liens. By law, once a lien forecloses, title to the property automatically passes to the town and management of that property “rests exclusively with the board of selectmen,” according to town policy.

The town treasurer is tasked with preparing a list of acquired properties to present to the board for review, along with a recommendation on whether each property should be sold outright, sold with conditions or maintained for public use.

Once McLamb has made his recommendations, the selectmen have 30 days to make final decisions.

In 2010, when the town considered a list of 16 tax-acquired properties, the board voted to sell 15 of them and retain one for public use — a small building opposite the town office so the town could maintain access to the river.

At the time, the town had been holding 25 tax-acquired properties — the highest number in memory — and 15 were chosen for sale to recoup back taxes.

When selling tax-acquired properties, towns set bid prices to cover accumulated taxes, outstanding sewer and water liens, attorney’s fees and any advertising costs for the sale.

For the Cook property, McLamb said that means that if selectmen move to sell, a minimum bid will be set for the property to cover all outstanding costs to the town and to pay lien holders. The town is not obliged to give any extra revenue to Cook, he added, noting she owes so much that “there wouldn’t be any extra money” anyway.

The town has the option, McLamb said, to consider granting Cook a quitclaim deed, reverting ownership back to Cook and giving her an opportunity to sell the property herself, with the understanding that the unpaid taxes and other liens would still have to be paid, but he doesn’t think it’s an option selectmen will take because of financial liability for the town and because of Cook’s track record of not making agreed-to payments.

Cook has consulted with Pine Tree Legal attorneys to see if she has any recourse, and said she contacted a liquidator to tackle the furniture and other possessions in the house, but he wants a $1,000 deposit she doesn’t have to spend. “Everything I own is in that house and I won’t be able to take a small percentage” when they leave. “The house has to be sold. We’re not going to get anything out of this.”

McLamb and Cook have recently exchanged a number of animated emails over disposition of the property, many of which Cook provided to the Sun Journal. She doesn’t think McLamb is treating her fairly, and he denies targeting her property for certain sale.

“I do understand,” he said. “I have compassion for her, but the town’s given her so many chances before I’ve taken over. It’s just a hole that’s continuing to get deeper” and he sees his duty as working toward the financial success of the entire town, not to a single taxpayer.

“I know that there are some towns around the area that don’t do anything with tax-acquired properties. They essentially let them rot and fall down. I think Dixfield is a beautiful place and I don’t want to see that happen,” he said.

Selectmen are scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, at the fire station.


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