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Court battle means Pink House can't be fixed yet

CORNWALL — A prominent building in the center of West Cornwall remains in limbo, nearly three years after it was badly damaged in a fire.

A court case has been decided on its complicated ownership/use status, but the matter is not likely to end there.

Some repairs were made to the Pink House, named for the pastel paint applied sometime after Richard and Maura Smithies bought the property in 1970.

A January 2008 blaze raged from the first-floor fireplace area through the roof on the western end of the 1870 structure. The property was not insured. After long being covered by a blue tarp, the house has been closed in with a proper roof and walls, but it remains “unfit for human habitation,” due to interior damage and the lack of power and water.

A building permit needed to make further repairs cannot be issued until back taxes owed on the property are paid.

The unusual color has been a source of controversy over the years, but now pales in light of the effect of an empty structure in the struggling town center. Located on Route 128, within sight of the Covered Bridge, the 12-room home’s status strikes a blow to efforts to foster a thriving tourist center.

A recent survey prepared for the Cornwall Planning and Zoning Commission as a means of providing guidance for redevelopment of town centers suggests the “pink house” be used as a commercial establishment.

For years the residence was a commercial establishment. It has served as an inn; and one side of the now two-family home recently housed an art gallery.

In 1998, the Smithies entered into negotiations with Landmark Trust USA, based in Brattleboro, Vt. The nonprofit is modeled after The Landmark Trust in Great Britain. Its goal is to save notable properties, restoring them as authentically as possible. Buildings, from towers to forts to shepherd’s cottages (and Rudyard Kipling’s home in Vermont) are rented out as vacation homes. Proceeds are used to fund ongoing work.

In the Smithies’ case, they turned the property over to the Landmark Trust in exchange for a life estate. The 1998 agreement gave the couple the right to use the property, maintain it and receive any rental income for life.

The nonprofit group will receive the property, for no consideration, when both are deceased.

According to a decision issued July 13 by Judge John W. Pickard at Litchfield Judicial Court, the two parties were still in negotiations concerning payment of taxes, insurance and repairs when the Smithies filed a warranty deed.

The couple has now split up. Maura Smithies continued to live in the house until the fire but stopped paying property insurance in December 2005, and property taxes in 2007.

After the fire, Smithies moved into a converted barn on the property. When the lack of insurance was discovered, Landmark Trust sued Smithies for $195,000 and asked that the life estate be terminated.

That amount was determined by taking the $765,000 gross market value of the property and subtracting the $435,000 value of the life estate, for a net market value of $330,000.

The deferred maintenance costs following the fire were determined to be $50,000 and repair costs directly attributed to the fire $400,000. Adjusted figures put the market value of the property at $135,000, a net loss to the Landmark Trust of $195,000.

Judge Pickard’s decision was to find Smithies responsible only for the deferred maintenance, citing statutes and case law that show a tenant is not responsible for repairing major fire damage not caused by their negligence.

Calculating $50,000 as 11.11 percent of the $450,000 total in needed repairs, Judge Pickard applied the percentage, deemed to be Smithies’ responsibility, to the $195,000 claimed by Landmark Trust. Smithies was ordered to pay Landmark $21,664.50, plus costs.

Smithies, who represented herself in court, testified she lives on Social Security and cannot pay money damages. Landmark argued that the termination of her life tenancy would be a fair remedy for its loss. As an alternative remedy, they asked that Smithies be restricted to living in the barn apartment, so Landmark can repair the house.

Pickard stated he could find no law that called for the forfeiture of a life estate as a remedy.

Smithies could not be reached for comment.

Landmark Trust USA President David Tansey told The Journal his group intends to continue to pursue the property, and may appeal the court decision. But with Smithies still having the rights to the property, it will be difficult.

“It’s very sad to see a building like that molder,” Tansey said. “We just want to do what we do and preserve a notable building. It will be three years in January since the fire. It’s intensely frustrating.”

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