Wilmot homeowner sues town for $20.7 million
A woman is suing the town of Wilmot for nearly 20 times its 2013 operating budget, contending officials wrongfully tried to force her to lower the height of the 14,000-square-foot home and recording studio she has been building for the past nine years.
In her suit, filed late last month with the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire, Monica Banerjee claims the town’s efforts have obstructed her ability to complete portions of the home, including the studio, a potential revenue stream.
She also claims the town issued her multiple building permits with a 35-foot height safety requirement that was in fact beyond the capacity of its own emergency services, because the fire department’s tallest ladder is just 24 feet in length.
“By implementing an illegal building height and approving the home at it’s (sic) 35 foot height, the Town impaired it’s own contractual duty to approve homes that will be adequately serviced by the Wilmot Fire Department as promised in the Town of Wilmot’s Zoning Ordinances,” Banerjee, who is representing herself, says in the suit.
Banerjee is seeking $20.7 million in damages and lost income – the town’s budget is $1.18 million. She did not return requests for comment this week, and a man present in the home turned away a Monitor reporter.
The town has yet to file a response to the lawsuit, and selectmen and fire officials did not return requests for comment Monday. But in a court proceeding on a cease-and-desist order issued by the town in 2010 – which was ultimately overturned by the judge in that case – officials argued Banerjee’s residence exceeded the height limit outlined in its zoning ordinance and three building permits it had previously issued to her.
Banerjee purchased the Granite Hill Road property in December 2003 and began construction on it the following year. According to her suit, she hadn’t initially planned to build it herself but when no one would do it for her, she formed a construction company called 360 Sound and Vision and set out on her own.
Banerjee had obtained a building permit from the town in 2003, which stipulated the height of the house would not exceed 35 feet at its peak. After breaking ground in 2004, she submitted revised plans and was issued a new permit, which this time did not include a height limit but did indicate the building would be just two stories tall.
Banerjee finished framing the main residential portion of the building in 2006. The house stood then – as it appears to now – three stories tall at the front entrance. The back of it, which faces east onto an expansive valley, is also three stories tall but, due to the slope of the property, includes a walkout basement that adds 10 feet to the building’s height on that side.
Banerjee applied for and was granted a third permit in 2007, which indicated the building would once again rise 35 feet and include three stories. She moved into the completed portion of the building in 2008.
In its 2010 cease-and-desist order, town officials informed Banerjee that the house could stand no more than 35 feet from any given point around its base. Banerjee contested the order and claims in her suit that at the time, she had been under the impression the height restriction applied only to “drive-up access.”
The cease-and-desist order noted in part that the Banerjee’s building was not compliant with the town’s 1988 zoning ordinance, which, until amended in 2012, stated: “The height of any new building shall no(t) exceed that which conforms with the capabilities of available Wilmot fire equipment.”
(The ordinance was amended at the 2012 annual town meeting, to instead read: “The height of any new building shall not exceed 35 feet between the maximum height of the roof to grade level, as measured on any face of the building.”)
In his 2011 decision to void the order, Judge Albert Cirone of Lebanon’s district court indicated the 35-foot measurement included in Banerjee’s two permits had been the town’s established benchmark for the maximum height it could fight fires.
But Wilmot’s fire chief at the time, Doug Rayno, testified during the trial that his department was equipped to fight only two-story fires, because the longest ladder it owned was 24 feet, according to the ruling.
“The first and third permits should have been denied by the selectmen if they were promoting safety objectives and exercising their discretionary authority in interpreting the zoning ordinance,” Cirone wrote.
Cirone also indicated that the town had erred in its enforcement of the code.
“Again, while expressing concern over the building’s height, nothing was done by (Wilmot) to compel compliance with the Town’s interpretation of its zoning ordinance or with the issued building permits,” he wrote. “Also, no Town official inspected the construction site.”
In fact, at the time of Cirone’s ruling, Wilmot did not have a building inspector. According to its website, it still doesn’t – though it’s advertising for one.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)