At the board’s last regular meeting, former board member William “Buzzy” Buswell called on the town to resolve issues regarding Dover Watch after the town announced that nary a single timeshare week had sold at a recent public tax sale. The town had taken more than 100 timeshare weeks at tax sale in 2010, with more than $189,000 owed in back taxes, interest, and penalties. The action left the town holding about 43% of Dover Watch’s units.
Dover Watch Association President Steve Moore indicated that one of the main municipal issues impacting their growth is change in zoning density in their district that, according to the Dover Watch Association, prohibited them from finishing a partially constructed building, or from building any new buildings.
Tuesday evening, Moore and former Dover Watch President Sue Gunderman laid out a timeline of the development’s trials and tribulations, beginning with developer Eugene Ettlinger’s plan to build the condominiums on two parcels, one along Route 100, and the other, larger parcel on Country Club Road, beginning in the early 1980s. The original plan called for a total of 88 units.
Only 12 units were completed, four units in each of the three finished buildings. Moore explained that a maximum of 50 weeks could be sold per unit – two weeks of the year were reserved for maintenance. In all, a total of about 600 weeks could have been sold. Moore said the peak year for Dover Watch timeshare sales was 1985 and, by the end of the 1980s, at least 458 weeks were owned. “This year, we’re billing for 274 weeks,” he said. “That doesn’t include the weeks owned by the town.”
Moore said the timeshare weeks were individually deeded to the owners. “Many people purchased them, including me, considering them to be a good investment, unaware of the pitfalls and expenses,” Moore said.
One of the pitfalls, owners soon found out, was the 1987 bylaw governing the owners’ association. “It gave the developer (Ettlinger) complete control over the development. He appointed the board, managed the finances, managed the facility, and made all the decisions regarding Dover Watch. Many of his decisions were not in the best interest of owners.”
In 2000 the owners revolted, gathering enough proxy votes to elect a new board. Gunderman called the takeover a “coup,” and she was elected president of the board. Ettlinger was allowed to remain on the board, she said, so that new board members could get the information they needed. What they found wasn’t good news. “There was a negative balance in the (association’s) checking account, we owed the town taxes, and we owed vendors in the valley. It took that first year just to getting up to speed, and we found out more than we ever wanted to.”
Over the next several years, the association was involved in a number of lawsuits – they sued Ettlinger and his corporation, but they also faced lawsuits from creditors and even an employee of Ettlinger who claimed the association owed back wages for work performed. Gunderman said Dover Watch prevailed against the employee, and against Ettlinger who, by that time, was no longer on the board. “We foreclosed on what were called ‘developer units,’ owned by the developer,” she said. “So we became owners of those weeks.”
Ettlinger filed bankruptcy, Gunderman said, and Dover Watch became involved in those proceedings. In the meantime, the association “mended fences” with local suppliers and contractors, and paid off their tax bill with the town. “We began to think about moving ahead,” Gunderman said. “And we signed a deal with Resort Realty to develop finances and the rest of the project. We thought we were good to go. Then, in 2004 or 2005, the roadblock was the new town zoning bylaw. We were in some kind of crazy residential district and couldn’t continue with what we planned to do. In the previous zoning, we had been grandfathered, quite clearly. But in the new zoning, that clause was gone.”
In 2007, the association was dealt another blow. A friend of Ettlinger’s stepped forward with a claim regarding the repayment of a $1.5 million mortgage, money he invested in Ettlinger’s development. As part of mediation between Ettlinger, the lender, and the association, Dover Watch agreed to pay the lender $1,000 for every week the association sells. “The most important thing was that Gene (Ettlinger) signed over all his development rights, all of the units he had, so we could say with the utmost clarity and surety that Gene Ettlinger is no longer a part of Dover Watch in any shape or form.”
The association attempted to negotiate zoning matters with the town, “but in 2008, the national economy started to crumble, and we were blindsided by that,” Gunderman said. “Our financial backers had been waiting for us to get permits, but at that time they either didn’t have the money anymore, or a timeshare wasn’t something they wanted to invest in anymore.”
With a budget of only $53,000, which includes all maintenance and administration, the current ownership is billed about $640 per year for their week – a figure Moore said he doesn’t want to increase. “As we lose more owners, the burden rests on those who continue to own,” he said. “For many owners, that may be a stretch at this point.”
But Moore said he believed Dover Watch could prosper if it could settle the tax issue and zoning issues with the town. “The timeshare industry has changed dramatically over the last 10 years or so. There have been a number of exchange networks that have developed, allowing owners to trade their week with someone else so they can stay at another place.”
Moore said that meant Dover Watch could be bringing in new first-time visitors to the valley; people who may return on a regular basis. “One of the reasons I’m a resident of Dover is because I came up for Dover Watch, and fell in love with the valley.”
At the board’s last regular meeting, board members asked Moore to offer some suggestions for solutions. “I’d like to suggest you consider restoring our zoning to its prior status,” he said, “and consider supporting a new Act 250 application.” He indicated that the association was willing to negotiate aspects of a plan for future construction with the town.
“Being able to build out would allow us to pay property taxes and bring in a lot of new people to the valley. If we were allowed to do that, we would be able to buy back the weeks owned by the town.”
Board members listened, rapt, as the Dover Watch representatives presented their saga. But Dover Zoning Administrator Dave Cerchio asked for clarification on the association’s assumption that they can’t proceed with construction. “The ‘grandfathering’ clause, section 1130, is still in our zoning bylaw,” he said. “It’s been there since 1988, and it’s still there now. I think the problem is that Dover Watch allowed its Act 250 permit to expire, and because of that they lost their grandfathering.”
Gunderman disagreed, noting that the Dover Watch Act 250 had been extended in 2005. At the time, she said, the Environmental Commission told Dover Watch they could finish their fourth building and construct a building over their pool. It was the town that said they were no longer “grandfathered,” she said. “If there’s a current Act 250, then I’d like to see it,” Cerchio said. “If there’s a valid Act 250 issued before 1988, then it’s grandfathered. It’s quite a common occurrence here in town. Hardly a year goes by that I don’t address four or five of these.”
But board member Linda Holland cast some doubt as to whether the development had a valid Act 250 permit. “In order to have an Act 250, you have to have (sewer) gallonage to build, and I know for a fact that you don’t have gallonage.”
With the status of the development’s Act 250 unclear, selectboard chair Randy Terk asked Moore and Gunderman to return to the board when the permit’s validity has been thoroughly researched. “If you can have the Act 250 reinstated, it sounds like that would solve the issue,” he said. “At this time, I’m not sure there’s anything the selectboard needs to recommend.”
Moore and Gunderman agreed. Moore told board members that the association may come to the town to request a letter of support for their Act 250 application. Terk said the board might consider it in the future. “I’m not going to say no, but I’m not sure we’re ready to provide a letter of support for what is essentially just a conversation at this point. But we’re here to assist you in whatever way we can. If it’s just a simple reinstatement of your Act 250 for 88 units or less, I don’t see why we would oppose that.
Board member Joe Mahon said that the association must come to an agreement with the town over the units taken at tax sale. “We need to get those weeks out of the town’s ownership,” he said. “In order for us to move forward, we need to get those weeks back to you. We need some kind of plan, that includes some sort of compensation for the town.”