Rockingham going to court over Hetty Green Motel

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BELLOWS FALLS — The town of Rockingham is going to probate court to try and sort out the Hetty Green Motel mess.

While the Rockingham Select Board took no formal action Tuesday night, the board agreed with the recommendation by Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda, who will return at the board's next meeting with a draft probate court document.

Ankuda said since that the town was a creditor to the estate of the late Maria Zdunek, who owned the Hetty Green, the town by law has first rights to any value in the estate, and other creditors would follow. He said the alternative is to do nothing and watch the building deteriorate even further. Or, he said, the town could push the building into a tax sale, but then the town would end up owning the building, which he didn't recommend.

Neighbors Marsha and Jim Austin of 235 Rockingham Street attended the meeting to urge the town to do something. Marsha Austin said she had seen activity at the abandoned motel, with windows being opened and closed and doors being left open in all weather. Earlier in the evening, before Ankuda arrived, the Rockingham board had adopted a local health order for the building, which will allow the town to secure the building as it sees fit. Charles Wise, the town's health officer, said none of Zdunek's heirs are interested in the building, leaving it up to the town to declare a health hazard.

The town will likely board up the windows and doors, although Marsha Austin later urged the board to do something that wouldn't create a bigger eyesore. Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the town highway crew would likely board up the building during a break in their winter responsibilities.

The town is owed about $40,000 in back property taxes on the motel, since Zdunek, who died last fall, had placed the business in bankruptcy. The village of Bellows Falls is also owed money for water and sewer services.

Ankuda said that if the motel still had a mortgage held by a bank, the town would have to be creative in striking a deal to get the motel in new hands. He stressed that the town is in the first position to recoup anything from the Hetty Green, including the four vintage Cadillacs that are on the premises.

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The town will petition the Windham Probate Court to appoint an administrator for Zdunek's estate, since none of her heirs are interested in assuming any responsibility for resolving the tangled financial mess. After an estate administrator is appointed, Ankuda said, the administrator must come up with an inventory of the estate within 30 days, which would include the Cadillacs.

Harrison had said earlier that the cars had generated some interest.

Jim Austin said he had taken some contractors on site to look at the motel, and he said there were issues of asbestos that would have to be dealt with — even with a demolition, which Austin said would be very expensive.

Ankuda said the key is to get the property into new hands for a nominal fee, with the condition that the building be either fixed up or demolished. And he only half-facetiously asked the Austins, who live across Rockingham Street from the motel, if they were interested. Ankuda suggested that the town and the Austins work with a local development group to find a new owner for the motel.

"Somebody has to have a vision," he said.

One thing's for sure, said Select Board Chairwoman Susan Hammond: the town doesn't want to pay for demolishing the building.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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