Keep out: Former town officials buy and sell property around Walker Pond where public has no access

  • The entrance of Walker Pond Road in Webster includes a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Monitor file

  • A map of the properties on the Webster side of Walker Pond shows the parcels owned by former town officials marked with green pins. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 2/4/2023 3:51:15 PM

A summer real estate listing advertised 27 acres of waterfront property at the end of a private road as the perfect place to “build your dream retreat” on privately situated land at the edge of Walker Pond in Webster.

For many months last year, the large parcel on the south end of the pond was listed for $350,000. Mason Donovan, a former Webster Select Board member, and Mark Kaplan, a member of the Boscawen Conservation Commission, own the waterfront property, which consists of four plots totaling 27.1 acres.

Donovan and Kaplan purchased two waterfront lots for about $15,500 when the local water precinct sold the properties around the pond at a sealed-bid auction. They were among a small cluster of current and former town officials who purchased property along the pond at bargain-basement prices. Many of the lots were considered non-buildable and were primarily of interest to the town or existing abutters.

At the auction at the end of 2021, private bidders purchased all of the lots for sale, continuing a pattern of keeping the public out of the Webster side of the pond.

Of the 18 waterfront parcels on the Webster side, half are owned by former town officials.

By contrast, on the other side of the pond in Boscawen, proactive public officials bought 65 acres of land for preservation and public recreation. This town meeting, discussion about residents’ access to the public body of water from the Webster side may arise again, but opportunities are becoming scarce.

No private buyer came forward to acquire the parcel on the south end of the pond and become part of this exclusive community, which includes former selectman and town treasurer Bruce Johnson, who illegally purchased three acres of town land for $7,000 in October 2019 while serving as a public official.

Not only did the town illegally sell off public property near the pond – further eroding public rights – the residents who live there block public access to the pond.

“No trespassing” signs are posted at various points along Walker Pond Road. Public records show residents will call the police when they see a vehicle they don’t recognize.

The listing for the 27-acre parcel of land was removed after 160 days on the market and after the Monitor asked about a possible sale of the land to the town for public use. Donovan declined to comment when asked if he would be willing to negotiate a sale of the parcel to the town.

At the water precinct’s auction in 2021, another town official, Michele Derby, who was Webster’s town clerk, purchased a 9-acre parcel along the pond through sealed bids for $100,000. With her parcel of land, she also acquired ownership of a portion of Walker Pond Road that ends at a small beach at the water’s edge, suitable for putting in small boats like canoes and kayaks.

“The public wouldn’t have access to that part (Walker Pond) anyway. They can’t access it because of the private road,” Derby said in December. “They must be accessing it from the Boscawen side.”

Derby announced that she was resigning her position in the town’s December newsletter. Her last day on the job was Jan. 4.

When Johnson was found guilty of a Class B misdemeanor, he was fined $1,200. He resigned soon after, but he still owns those parcels. The two parcels he purchased are next to his Walker Pond home, and Derby’s portion of the private road runs alongside. He did not respond to a request for comment.

While Donovan and Derby bid on the shoreline parcels at the auction, another town official who lived next to the pond was outbid for a waterfront lot.

Michele Tremblay, who served as deputy treasurer under Johnson and later as treasurer after he resigned, was later able to acquire through her real estate company for less than $4,000 two acres of land on Longver Lane that sold at the water precinct auction, according to public records.

Protected landturns private

For many years, the 200-acre Walker Pond served as the main source of water for the Penacook-Boscawen Water Precinct. To safeguard its water source, the precinct purchased the surrounding land when it became available.

Concerns about water quality, however, prompted the precinct to drill wells in the 1990s. With no reason to protect the pond any longer for drinking water, less than 30 precinct members voted at the annual meeting in 2021 to sell the land surrounding the pond.

The two towns reacted differently when the water precinct parcels became available on both sides of the pond. Boscawen was proactive; they had been staying on top of the minutes from the water precinct’s discussions on the subject and negotiated a direct sale. In Webster, private individuals were inquiring about buying the lots before the town expressed any interest, according to meeting minutes.

With a deal in place on one side of the pond and no deal on the other, the water precinct dealt with the two towns differently.

Through a warrant article, it authorized the sale of parcels surrounding Walker Pond to the Boscawen Conservation Commission for recreational and conservation purposes. However, the water precinct passed a warrant requiring the parcels in Webster to be sold through an auction, sealed bids or a licensed real estate agent. The vote to sell the Webster land that way was passed by a vote of 11-10. Upon a second recount vote, the tally changed to 12-10.

In Boscawen, the town’s Conservation Commission and the community came together to access a land-use change tax, which allowed them to buy two sizeable lots on their side of the pond, effectively protecting almost the entire area on the Boscawen side for public use.

In Webster, however, it was former Webster town officials and other existing property owners who were able to legally acquire five available waterfront parcels for themselves at the water precinct auction. The town, on the other hand, lost out on the only parcel it tried to buy.

The Webster Conservation Commission, led by Chair Christine Schadler, who was also a property owner along the pond, attempted to purchase the northernmost parcel, which was listed for a minimum bid of $60,000 but failed due to a lack of funds and an inability to place competitive bids. Maria Santos, a Massachusetts resident, won the auction with a winning bid of $117,102 and now owns the 32.7 acres at the north end of the pond.

Public access, according to Schadler, was never the aim. The town placed its bids on the largest parcel to the north of the pond – near property owned by Johnson and Schadler – because it was close to a loon nesting site, and it made ecological sense to protect it.

No warrant articles were put forth during town meeting asking residents to purchase any of the lots. Meeting minutes show little consideration for tapping unused public funds to boost the town’s bidding power.

Even when the parcel south of the pond’s end came up for sale last year, the Conservation Committee had no interest in purchasing it to secure public access. Schadler said that they are not looking to buy the land but will attempt to intervene if it is sold for development, echoing the commission’s decision from the previous years.

“I can tell you right now that our little Conservation Commission is not going to be able to do a darn thing,” said Schadler. “We don’t have $350,000.”

The piece that Derby bought was the one that could have given the residents access to the pond, but the town didn’t bid on it.

Schadler was the chair of the Board of Selectmen in 2019 when Bruce Johnson illegally purchased the town land near the pond. She signed the deed transferring ownership of the property to Johnson. Last March, Schadler sold her camp and 1.9 acres of land at 132 Walker Pond Road to Johnson for $75,000, furthering his land holdings around the pond to 9.3 acres.

Some residents want Johnson to forfeit the land he bought from the town, but the town hasn’t taken any steps toward it.

Webster’s ‘private’ pond

With the bulk of Webster’s waterfront parcels owned by former town officials and private residents, the road leading to the pond is marked with ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Private Property’ signage at the entrance to keep the public out.

The most direct route to the pond is Walker Pond Road, which is just off Pleasant Street, but it is inaccessible to Webster residents who want to access this public body of water without leaving town.

Neither town officials nor property owners have shown interest in affording public access to the pond for the residents of their town.

Webster Select Board Chair David Hemenway noted that there has been discussion in town for more recreational land, such as a town beach, but he said Walker Pond would not be a suitable location because of the private access-only road.

“I don’t expect Walker Pond public access to be brought up at Town Meeting, though the residents are always welcome to submit petition warrant articles,” said Hemenway.

Tremblay said the sales happened the way they did because the water precinct offered the land to Boscawen at a reduced price and Webster wasn’t given the same opportunity.

After negotiation, the water precinct sold 65 acres to Boscawen for $90,000. The five plots totaling approximately 48 acres in Webster were sold through sealed bidding for more than $200,000.

Tremblay, who owns a real estate company, said Donovan’s desire to sell his land was none of the public’s concern.

“The sale of land by a private landowner is private business,” she said.

The 2.1-acre piece of waterfront land Tremblay purchased on Longver Lane is primarily wetlands near her existing property, which is assessed by the town at $98,600. She said most of the property owners are working-class individuals.

“The road is privately owned, and the owners have a right to keep the public out,” she said.

Dispatch logs obtained from the Webster police department show that Tremblay at least once called the police to check out an unknown vehicle parked on Walker Pond Road. By the time officers arrived, the vehicle was gone.

Alan Hardy, chair of Boscawen’s Conservation Commission and retired town manager, said town officials attended water precincts meetings once the commission realized they were looking to sell properties along Walker Pond. He said they followed up with the water precinct to show interest in purchasing the parcels.

“Our interest is preservation and protection,” said Hardy. “The issue we’ve got is that there is no public access on the Webster side, so if there’s a desire to access, it’s got to be from the Boscawen side, and the challenge for us is parking.”

The Boscawen Conservation Commission is debating the possibility of establishing a town forest along the pond, which would protect the land for the benefit of the community for generations to come.

“It’s more procedure than anything else and is intended to be protective in nature,” said Hardy.

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan covers environmental and energy stories in Bow, Hopkinton, Dunbarton and Warner for the Concord Monitor. In 2022, she graduated from Northwestern University with a master's degree in journalism, specializing in investigative reporting. She also has a bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering and is always looking for new ways to incorporate data and visual elements into her stories. Her work has appeared in Energy News Network, Prism Reports and Crain's Chicago Business.

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