Maine Business and Consumer Court

Court rules for MDOT in Doering injunction attempt

Posted:  Tuesday, September 12, 2017 - 4:15pm

On Sept. 11, a court ruled in favor of Maine Department of Transportation in a suit brought by a family owning several downtown Wiscasset properties. The suit  regarded MDOT’s downtown Route 1 project. The Wiscasset Downtown Public Advisory Committee is currently considering final design elements.

The suit’s plaintiffs, Wawenock LLC and Bermuda Isles LLC, as well as other properties in town owned by Ralph H. Doering and his family, were represented by Portland attorney Robert S. Hark.

The suit was filed in Lincoln County in February, and was moved to the Business and Consumer Court in Portland. It was amended in June.

On July 7, MDOT responded to the amended suit by asking for a summary judgment. The plaintiffs objected on July 27. The court chose to rule on the motion without a hearing and issued the summary judgment in MDOT’s favor Monday.

In Count I, the plaintiffs had alleged MDOT failed to comply with state statutes and its own regulations. The court ruled that even if there had been a violation, the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue or seek redress, since the statutes cited do not allow for a private party’s “right of action”; that is, only a municipality could sue, and Wiscasset has not done so. Therefore, the court found for MDOT and dismissed that count of the suit.

In the second count, the plaintiffs said MDOT had commenced eminent domain takings by sending them forms in September 2016. None of the plaintiffs’ properties were taken by eminent domain to date, and the court said that even if at some point they might be, no legal action could yet be taken. In court document, the judge said the case was “not yet ripe for judicial consideration.”

In Count III, the plaintiffs said MDOT “wrongfully” persuaded selectmen to execute an acknowledgement of intent that Wiscasset would pay for certain parts of the project, such as restroom construction. By use of the term “wrongful,” the court said the plaintiffs would have to show MDOT “somehow coerced, manipulated, pressured, or threatened” the board to sign the letter, which the plaintiffs’ pleadings did not show. Moreover, the court said, the select board is entitled to exercise all administrative and executive powers of the town, including the signing of intent documents. The court dismissed Count III as well.

In Counts IV and V, the plaintiffs alleged MDOT failed to comply with town ordinances. But once again, the court found that the plaintiffs did not have standing because there is no right to private action, and dismissed the counts.

Count VI involved an alleged violation of Wiscasset’s comprehensive plan. The court ruling states that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court views comprehensive plans as visionary documents, not regulatory documents. The plaintiffs were unable to show a claim for which relief could be granted, and so Count VI was also dismissed.

Counts VII and VIII alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ right to due process and other constitutional rights. The allegations were grounded in the idea that MDOT was commencing eminent domain taking, and for the same reason it dismissed Count II, the court dismissed Counts VII and VIII – the case is not ripe, according to the ruling.

Count IX alleged MDOT lacked the right, title and interest to alter some parts of Main, Water and Middle streets and Railroad Avenue, and didn’t have ownership rights to construct the downtown project. The court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue on these grounds.

“The Court has reviewed all of the Plaintiffs’ allegations against MDOT and determined that even if all the facts alleged are true, Plaintiffs have failed to state any claims for which this Court may grant relief. Defendant MDOT’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is therefore granted in full as to all counts and it is ordered that the judgment be entered for the Defendant Maine Department of Transportation on all Counts.”

Ernie Martin of MDOT said his work would continue as it always had, regardless of the legal victory. “Maine DOT is pleased that the court agreed that the lawsuit brought by the plaintiffs had no merit. Just because you don’t like the design of a highway project doesn’t give you the right to stop it. Maine DOT looks forward to working with the town and public on this important regional highway project.”

A call to Hark was not immediately returned. Attempts to reach Doering, who also owns a home in Florida, were not immediately successful.