Locator map: Stone Street and Davenport Street, Augusta

October 14, 2013

Toilets bloom on Maine lawn to protest Dunkin’ Donuts zoning denial

An Augusta plumber hoped to sell his property to the donut franchise, and now that he can’t he’s making a statement by installing flower potties.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Five toilets sit at the rear of plumber David Labbe’s lawn, on the back side of a home he doesn’t want.

David Labbe is looking for 60 to 70 toilets, in addition to the five already there, to install on his lawn in Augusta to protest the city’s decision to deny a zoning change that would have permitted Dunkin’ Donuts to build a store on the property.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Under a recent proposal from a developer, his 1 Davenport St. house and an adjacent vacant Stone Street service station would have been torn down to build a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts.

That’s how Labbe wanted it. He said he agreed to a sale price three times higher than what he paid for the property in 1999, and he wants out.

But Augusta officials, backed by neighbors, soundly rejected the zoning change that would have allowed the franchise to come. Labbe’s deal was scuttled.

So in August, Labbe countered by putting toilets up on the edge of his lawn bordering Crooker Street. On Sunday, flowers were planted in the bowls: pink chrysanthemums in three, yellow lantanas in two.

But recently, he has posted a sign by the toilets stating an expanded vision for his lawn: It says he wants 60 to 70 more toilets.

“I’m going to line the whole street with toilets,” Labbe said in a Sunday interview. “I figure I can put almost a hundred up in there.”

Labbe said the toilets are there for two main reasons: to protest opposition to the Dunkin’ Donuts and because he doesn’t much care what his property looks like now.

He and his family’s support of the Dunkin’ Donuts may be the only support in the neighborhood, which the Kennebec Journal canvassed by phone and on foot Saturday and Sunday.

All who spoke pooh-poohed Labbe’s approach as juvenile, saying the Dunkin’ Donuts would have encroached into a quiet neighborhood and created traffic issues.

At public meetings on the zoning change, officials and residents were mostly concerned about changing the landscape of a residential area. Mayor William Stokes, who lives at 21 Fairview Ave., a five-minute walk from Labbe, was a vocal opponent, saying pushing back residential boundaries would set a bad precedent in the city.

Labbe’s property would have had to have been rezoned to accommodate the restaurant. The Planning Board rejected the zoning change proposed by the developer, Massachusetts-based Cafua Management Co., unanimously in August. It found no support from city councilors in a final Thursday vote that a crowd applauded.

“When you don’t get your way with something, to take vengeance or revenge on your neighbors shows a demonstration of poor character,” said Glenn Mills, who lives at 13 Fairview Ave., of Labbe.

Not that Labbe cares what neighbors think.

“That’s too bad,” Labbe said. “They pissed me off, I’m going to piss them off now.”

“He’s not pissing us off,” Stokes said. “Most of us who live on the street think it’s pretty childish behavior.”

Labbe said he has wanted to sell his house for years.

City records show he and his wife, Clarissa, bought it in 1999 for $62,000. Labbe wouldn’t give the sale price he agreed on, but he said it was three times more than what he bought it for.

He said the neighborhood would have been improved if the vacant Citgo station, with weeds protruding from its crumbling pavement, was demolished. Many, including Stokes, agree it’s an eyesore.

Labbe has a laundry list of complaints about the house and the area.

He said he has never completely sided the home because he can’t afford to. Property taxes in Augusta are too high, he said. He said his plumbing work has dropped by more than 60 percent over the past few years.

He said his kids, ages 10 and 13, have never been allowed to play outside unsupervised because the neighborhood is unsafe, abounding with sex offenders. He said someone broke in while his family was home three years ago.

Labbe said he was born and raised in Augusta, but he wants to leave. He’s not optimistic, though, and his home isn’t on the market.

“We’ll never be able to sell this place,” he said.

Labbe is bitter toward city officials as well. He blames city leaders who live nearby – including Stokes and City Manager William Bridgeo, who also lives on Fairview Avenue – for rejecting the deal out of what he calls misguided concerns about traffic.

“If you don’t want anything done in the city, have the mayor and city manager live on your street,” Labbe said.

But Stokes said he doesn’t know of one person in the neighborhood aside from Labbe who supported the restaurant.

“Speakers? Delivery trucks at night?” said Patrick Hafey, of 2 Davenport St., across from Labbe. “As much as I like coffee and Boston cream doughnuts, I don’t want them across the street from me.”

Labbe acknowledged that he’s alienated in the neighborhood, but he said if “they don’t care about me, I don’t care about them.”

The city may start caring.

By ordinance, it controls licenses for junkyards and Stokes said Labbe’s property could be considered one – maybe not now, but if the toilets get out of hand.

For now, many are treating the toilets lightly. Scott Neumeyer, of 1 Mitchell St., said he’s heard similar quotes about those like Labbe from neighbors he has talked with: “There’s one in every neighborhood.”

“To respond to this by collecting toilets to add to your lawn, it’s hard to take seriously,” Neumeyer said. “It’s more kind of a laughable annoyance now than a problem.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at mshepherd@centralmaine.com.

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