Sunday, November 05, 2006

Retiree Gets Soaked by Town Council in Land Deal

From North
Ronald Leach thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- a chance to buy a sprawling, tree-studded lot in the center of the densely packed town of Ridgefield, a quiet place where he and his wife could build a retirement home.
As soon as Leach heard the borough was accepting bids for the town-owned land, he rushed into Borough Hall with a promise to pay $350,000.

The 59-year-old trucking company employee also cut a $35,000 check, the required 10 percent down payment, which he borrowed from his retirement plan.

But days later, when Leach found out his was the winning bid -- and the only bid -- he was not celebrating.
By then, he realized he had made a "stupid, stupid mistake." He had assumed he knew what lot the town was selling when an acquaintance in town said it was "next to the Community Center."

He never bothered to look at the zoning maps for the "Lot 3, Block 907" described in the bid specifications.
Leach had not submitted a bid for the beautiful, vacant corner lot next to the town's Community Center, but for the narrow, flood-prone parcel that sits on the other side of Slocum Street and straddles a creek.

The borough's response when Leach tried to back out of the deal and retrieve his $35,000 check added insult: Sorry, it was your mistake, borough officials told him before a majority of the council voted to accept his bid at a meeting in late June.
The bid specification allowed the town to keep the down payment if he were to back out of the deal.

Leach, a 20-year Ridgefield resident, accuses borough officials of being greedy and questions why they would take the retirement money of a well-meaning resident who made an honest mistake.

But Borough Attorney Stephen Pellino said that the borough is not under any legal obligation and that doing so could set a dangerous precedent. "The implications are huge," Pellino said. "We do large [street] repaving bids, and we can't just allow those people to back out of bids."

Leach refused to sign the contract that would have finalized the $350,000 deal, meaning the town still owns the lot, which has an assessed value of $560,000. The problem is, the 7,500-square-foot lot borders Wolf's Creek, and any development of the land would require lengthy and costly approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The bid specifications state that the borough may keep the winning bidder's down payment to cover the town's losses if that bidder does not sign a contract.

The borough recently advertised the land a second time, Pellino said, but there were no bidders.

Suarez said he would not comment on the matter because it could be the subject of litigation. But Councilman Robert Avery, one of two members who voted in June not to accept Leach's bid, said taking Leach's money could lead to a costly lawsuit.
"I'd rather there be a peaceful resolution of the issue instead of more expensive litigation," he said.

"That means negotiations."

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