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easton

Town-gown fee dispute goes to court

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2010

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Stonehill College and its host community, Easton, generally get along well, according to officials on both sides. But one recent disagreement could not be settled satisfactorily, it seems, so the two sides will take it up in court.

The dispute began last fall when Easton’s building inspector charged the college a $55,754 penalty for starting construction on a dormitory without the required building permit.

Stonehill paid the fine but is now suing Easton to get the money back, saying the fee was unfair. The college is also asking for court costs, according to documents filed in Bristol Superior Court.

“We think the penalty is excessive and arbitrary,’’ college spokesman Martin McGovern said recently.

Easton’s building inspector, Mark Trivett, disagrees. He said Easton’s regulations are pretty much the standard, and the fine was based on a fee schedule approved by the town’s Board of Selectmen. “Across the state and across the country, codes say when work begins without a permit, the fee shall be doubled,’’ he said.

The cost of the building permit in Easton is 75 cents per square foot. The permit for the four-story dorm, which will be about 75,000 square feet when completed, was $55,754. Between the permit and the penalty, the school paid a total of $111,508.

This was not the first time the college has run into trouble with Easton over failure to secure permits.

“There have been at least a half-dozen other instances in the last seven or eight years,’’ Trivett said. According to his records, the college had to pay double the fee in 2002 for starting work on the alteration of health services, counseling, and campus ministry offices without the permit. In 2003, work began on the renovation of the alumni hall with no permit in place. More recently, structural modifications to the college center were begun without a permit.

“And they demolished the stadium bleachers and the press box without first getting a permit,’’ Trivett said. Stonehill paid penalties for each of those infractions, although the fines were relatively small because of the size of the projects, officials said.

McGovern admitted that the college has been fined in the past. “But we’ve never been penalized to this extent,’’ he said. “Given the number of projects that have taken place over the years, I feel our record is a good one.’’

Construction of the dormitory began last summer. Officials said Walsh Bros., the Boston-based firm serving as general contractor for the job, obtained a foundation permit prior to work. Once that phase was complete, in September, a structural engineer certified it.

Masonry walls began to go up on Oct. 5. One of the town’s inspectors told Walsh to apply for the permit, which was done on Oct. 6. But that afternoon, the town informed the college a permit would not be issued until a $55,754 penalty was paid.

Town Administrator David Colton said correct procedure was followed and the town’s code is clear: Building without a permit results in doubling of the permit fee. “When Mark [Trivett] came to me about it, I asked him if he had done this to others and he said, yes, just a couple weeks before,’’ Colton said.

Stonehill paid the fine, saying it was doing so “under protest and would seek return of the funds through legal action, if necessary,’’ according to court documents. The building permit was issued on Oct. 7.

Trivett said the need for a permit was surely no surprise to the college or the construction company. “My field inspectors were reminding them for a couple or three weeks to get their permits for the next phase,’’ Trivett said. “They didn’t get it squared away until we raised the red flag.’’

Stonehill officials wrote to selectmen in late October, asking that the penalty be waived. Selectmen chairwoman Colleen Corona responded saying selectmen did not have the authority to consider such a waiver, based on advice from the town’s attorney.

Stonehill then appealed to the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which dismissed the appeal saying it did not have jurisdiction over disputes related to building permit fees.

Taking the town to court was a “last resort,’’ McGovern said.

Both sides hope the generally positive town-gown relationship will withstand the court challenge.

“Easton has been a wonderful place for the Stonehill community to be located,’’ McGovern said. “I would say the history of goodwill and good relations will triumph over this ultimately.’’

Corona agreed the town and college have historically gotten along but said she could not predict the impact of the suit. “I hope it doesn’t hurt our relationship,’’ she said. “We were surprised by the lawsuit.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.