Businessman Walter Butler wants to buy back the 22-acre gift he made for school athletes in 2014. But because he's now a town councilor, the municipality says it's not that simple.
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Walter Butler stands on the edge of a 22.42-acre parcel he donated in 2014 to the town of Standish, which was intended to become a six-field soccer complex. Nine years later, the town no longer plans to build the soccer fields and is in the process of auctioning off the property. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
When Walter Butler bought a run-down industrial building and 50 acres in Standish a decade ago, he thought some of the land would be perfect for soccer fields.
A former coach and soccer parent, he believed there wasn’t enough field space, particularly for tournaments that would bring hundreds of people to town and boost local businesses. But with the renovation of his building underway, he didn’t have time to do it himself and approached the town with an offer to donate land for two soccer fields.
Town leaders at the time liked the idea and persuaded him to up the offer to 22 acres, enough land to build a six-field complex at 16 Moody Road. The town accepted the donation in 2014, and councilors praised Butler for his generosity.
Nine years later, the fields are not built and the town is auctioning off the property. Butler, who is now on the town council, is asking a court to stop the sale.
“I just feel swindled, frankly,” he said. If he can get the land back, he plans to build the fields.
On Thursday, Butler filed a request for a temporary restraining order in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking to stop the town from moving forward with the sale. In a complaint filed the same day, he asks the court to either declare the property a conditional gift or reschedule the bid process until Butler is eligible to participate when his term on the council ends next month.
Sealed bids for the property are due May 18. The minimum bid is set at $300,000.
Town officials say the sale is legal because the deed does not contain any covenants or use restrictions that limit the town’s use of the property for recreational purposes. Both the prior and current recreation director says the expense of developing and maintaining playing fields is not something they recommend the town undertake, Town Manager Tashia Pinkham said.
The town says it would be illegal to give the land back to Butler or his business, Butler Castings Realty because towns simply can’t give away public property. And town rules and the council’s code of ethics prevent any sitting town councilor from buying town-owned property.
“Ultimately, the 16 Moody Road property belongs to the town of Standish, and the Town Council and town manager are following proper procedures relating to the proposed sale of the property, despite Mr. Butler’s attempts to influence the process,” Pinkham said.
Butler recognizes the whole situation may have been avoided with a deed restriction, but that never came up when the town attorney drafted the deed that Butler ultimately signed.
“Shame on me for not being as wise to the law. Regardless of whether it’s in the deed or not, the bottom line is that even if it’s legal, it’s not ethical,” he said. “Even if there’s nothing in the deed that says you have to use it only for soccer fields, never did I believe they’d be unethical and make this presentation about a six-field complex and then turn around to sell it.”
A COMPLICATED GIFT
Butler initially intended to donate land for two soccer fields and give the town access to his business’s parking lot next door. Town staff at the time worked with an engineer to design a six-field complex and presented the plans to Butler. He agreed to give more land to make it happen.
The town consulted with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to make sure the project would be viable on the land, which has some covenants related to groundwater contamination. Everything appeared to be in good order, and on Dec. 16, 2014, then-Town Manager Gordon Billington presented the plan to the Town Council.
“In this day and age of people looking out for themselves, you have taken a plant that has been vacant for many years and then top it all off with donating the soccer fields and allowing your facility’s parking lot to be used,” Councilor Lynn Olson said at the meeting. “(It) is generosity not normally seen, and I think you’re extraordinary for doing so.”
Walter Butler holds a copy of a proposed six-field soccer complex that was drawn up by the town of Standish on land that he donated for that purpose in 2014. Butler, who would now like to build the soccer fields himself, has told the town he’s considering legal action if they follow through on selling the land. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
After the council accepted the donation and the deed was filed, Butler’s role seemed to be over.
“I turned my back and walked toward my building to focus on that,” he said. “The town never took the next step. It’s really puzzling.”
Since then, the town manager, recreation director, and Town Council have all changed. Discussion of how to develop the field complex never moved beyond those initial plans, and the memory of the donation faded.
A few years ago, with the renovation over, Butler had more time for other projects and started asking about what happened with the soccer field. It was clear there were no plans to use the land for athletics fields, he said.
In June 2020, Butler’s attorney delivered the town a notice of claim that described “fraudulent misrepresentations made to induce Mr. Butler to make the gift of land.” The notice cited a state statute that says if a municipality fails to comply with the terms, the funds or gift will revert to the donor or the donor’s heirs. Attorney Andre Duchette asked the town whether it planned to fulfill its ends of the obligation or convey the land back to Butler.
The town told Butler’s attorney it could not give the land back. More than a year later, in December 2021, the Town Council voted to auction off the land but didn’t immediately put it out to bid.
Another year passed without the land being posted for sale, but the Town Council discussed the property in at least one executive session and considered conveying the property back to Butler. He was not allowed to attend those closed-door meetings because of his conflict of interest.
In a letter dated Dec. 30, 2022, Sally Daggett, an attorney for the town, told councilors they could rescind the decision to sell because there were no bids or contracts on the property, she wrote.
But Daggett said the proposed conveyance of town-owned property to a sitting town councilor raised multiple legal concerns. Doing so would run afoul of the town’s ethics policy, raise conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety concerns under both state statute and common law on conflicts of interest, and constitute an unlawful gift of public property for private purposes, she said.
In a Feb. 23 letter to Butler’s attorney, Daggett said the town intended to proceed with the sale. On April 11, the town started the sealed-bid process.
‘HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN?’
It seems few people in town were aware of the donation and decision to sell the land until the past few months.
Holly Stewart, who sits on the board of the Bonny Eagle Soccer Club, didn’t hear about Butler’s donations or the long-ago plans to build soccer fields until recently. The nonprofit club leases a field in Buxton but has been looking for better field space. It wouldn’t be able to afford the $300,000 minimum bid for the Standish property, but creating those fields would be huge for the community, she said.
The idea that land intended for the community is being sold off doesn’t sit well with Stewart or others she’s talked to in town.
“They clutch their pearls and say, ‘How can this happen? This doesn’t seem right,’ ” she said. “My big concern is that this was a donation for the children of the community that’s now being taken from them.”
Those questions were echoed last week by three other residents who spoke at the Town Council meeting and asked councilors to use the land for its intended purpose or find a way to give it back.
“I’m outraged by the way this is turning out at this point because clearly, it was not the intent of the donation. The intent was obvious,” Jim Branscombe said. “There’s legally, and there’s right. And this is wrong. To sell this now is wrong.”
“Everyone I talk to is flabbergasted the town would try to sell the land. I think it’s a poor example to set going forward,” Carolyn Biegel said. “I really urge you to rescind your vote to sell the property and revisit this situation.”
Deborah Butler, Walter Butler’s wife, told councilors that they donated the land in good faith to do something positive for the town, but she does not feel the town has acted in good faith.
“There is a saying, just because it’s legal and you can does not mean you have to or that you should,” she said.
After listening to the residents, Councilor Benjamin Macri said the idea of selling some town-owned property came up as the council discussed ways to avoid raising taxes and fund other projects. When he voted to sell the Moody Road property, he had no idea that it was gifted or had been set aside for a specific purpose, he said. He asked about making a motion to rescind the vote to sell.
Chairperson Sarah Gaba said she and the town manager are executing the will of the council in putting the land out for bid and that delaying the sale to create an opportunity for someone who is a sitting council member to reacquire the property is a further conflict of interest.
“It’s not an easy issue. I understand that folks are split on that,” she said.
Butler believes the town manager and Town Council tried hard to find a solution, and he said his intent in pushing back against the sale has never been to make the town look bad.
“My goal has only ever been to make the soccer fields,” he said.
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