BRUNSWICK, Maine — A Maine Superior Court justice ruled Wednesday that an 87-year-old neighbor of Bowdoin College must abide by a decades-old agreement and sell her home to the college for a fraction of the price she says she’s been offered by another party.
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy granted a preliminary injunction against Arline P. Lay, whose house at 28 College St. is the last property on the cross-campus street not owned by Bowdoin.
As of April 2016, the five-bedroom colonial was assessed at $154,300, which is 70 percent of the estimated market value, according to tax records.
Lay claims the historic value of the building is far greater because her family believes that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote part of her abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in the house while renting the upstairs front bedroom between 1850 and 1851.
Lay and her son, James Lay, say the historic value is further increased because the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem, “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” about a grandfather clock in the house, and because Alice Lay and Richard Coffin were models for a Thanksgiving painting by Norman Rockwell. Lay’s uncle, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former Bowdoin professor Robert Peter Tristram Coffin, also lived there.
Based on those claims, in 2014 and again in May 2016, Arline Lay listed the house for sale, first for $3 million, and last year for $1.6 million.
Last July she entered into an agreement to sell the five-bedroom colonial for $750,000 to Louise Jonaitis of Portland, who told the Bangor Daily News last August that she planned to open “a museum-quality art and literature center” on the property.
Lay told Bowdoin officials that under her interpretation of the terms of a 1996 agreement between Lay, her late husband, Richard A. Lay, and the college, the college could now exercise an option to pay 25 percent more than the $750,000, or $937,500.
Bowdoin College filed suit against Lay the following month to enforce the 1996 agreement as interpreted by college officials — an understanding that Murphy on Wednesday confirmed was accurate.
According to Murphy’s order, testimony of witnesses and evidence show that in 1996, the Lays negotiated and finalized a contract to sell their home at the time, at 26 College St., to Bowdoin, along with an additional agreement allowing the college to buy the adjacent property, 28 College St., when Lay or her husband died, “whichever is the last to occur,” or when Lay or her husband no longer used the property as their primary residence.
Furthermore, Murphy confirmed that an option agreement allows Bowdoin the “right of first refusal” to buy the house if either of the Lays decide to sell the property to a third party.
Murphy wrote that at least one of those “triggering” events has occurred, citing “unrebutted evidence” that Lay attempted to sell the house on more than one occasion and her decision to sell to Jonaitis, adding that all the actions “were done in clear violation of the option agreement.”
Murphy’s order prohibits Lay from selling the property to Jonaitis or any third party, and from listing the property at all, without a legally-binding written release from Bowdoin.
Furthermore, Murphy ordered Lay to comply with the appraisal process set out in the 1996 agreement, noting that because both Bowdoin and Lay have obtained appraisals, she must now comply with the requirement that the two appraisers solicit a third appraisal, and then Lay must sell the property to Bowdoin at the average of the three appraised values.
Despite a March 13, 2017, letter from Lay to the court stating otherwise, Murphy said evidence and testimony by Bowdoin’s counsel at the time show that the Lays were represented by an attorney during the 1996 transaction.
Lay was initially represented by Portland attorney Sean Joyce, but according to the Cumberland County registry of deeds, on March 10, Joyce filed a lien on the 28 College St. property for an unpaid balance of $25,498 for work performed for Lay prior to Dec. 14, 2016.
Also according to the court order, in June 2016, Lay took out a $400,000 mortgage on the property, told the court the money was used to pay off a previous mortgage, but “denied receiving any additional funds from the mortgage transaction. She also testified that this was all ‘fraudulently’ set up by Attorney Joyce.”
In an email Wednesday to the Bangor Daily News, James Lay wrote that the family plans to appeal Murphy’s decision.
“This is not only unfair, but beware if you are an elderly property owner with little resources to fight a monolithic $2 billion college,” Lay said, in part.
Lay also said a New York City attorney, whom he wouldn’t name, will also file a complaint with the Maine Bar Association charging Joyce, with “extreme overbilling.”
Joyce did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Scott Hood, spokesman for the college, on Thursday told the Bangor Daily News that the ruling speaks for itself, adding only, “The college is pleased with the result, and we look forward to acquiring the property in accordance with our original agreement.”