PETERBOROUGH — Former residents of the Walden Eco-Village are suing their landlord over their recent displacement from the Peterborough sustainable-living community.
Corinne Chronopoulos, Griffin Kelley, Michelle O’Mahony and Sarah Trento filed the suit Dec. 30 in the Manchester branch of Hillsborough County Superior Court, claiming — on behalf of all displaced tenants — that Eco-Village landlord Akhil Garland is required by state law to help them obtain and afford alternative housing, among other financial obligations.
The group is suing Garland, the Garland Family Realty Trust that owns the Eco-Village property, and Utopia Living, a business owned by Garland that the lawsuit states was a party to some residents’ leases. Class action means anyone similarly harmed can join the lawsuit and receive compensation, if it succeeds.
Chronopoulos, Kelley, O’Mahony and Trento were among the 25 Eco-Village residents ordered by town officials to vacate their homes near Middle Hancock Road last month. The order resulted from a Dec. 10 inspection of the site by Peterborough Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy and Fire Inspector Lt. Scott Symonds, who reported finding unapproved gas and electrical connections and nine tiny homes unauthorized as permanent residences.
Herlihy told Garland in a cease-and-desist letter the following day that the utilities violations posed an immediate danger to residents. He said residents were required to leave their homes by Dec. 16, giving them just five days to move out, and that Garland was responsible for providing alternative housing “until [the] structures are properly permitted.”
Some ended up in hotel rooms provided by Garland. Others have been living with family members or found different temporary shelter.
Chronopoulos and others argue in their lawsuit that by failing to secure proper permitting, Garland breached their respective leases and defied a state law prohibiting landlords from “willfully violat[ing] a tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment of his tenancy.”
They claim that Garland is therefore obligated, under RSA 540-A:4, to provide alternative housing, compensate them for all moving expenses and also finance their rent at any new lodging for the remainder of their Eco-Village lease. The latter provision would cover rent higher than what residents paid monthly at the Eco-Village, which ranged from $445 to $1,472, according to Jason Bielagus, a Peterborough attorney representing the group.
“They don’t have the luxury of time,” he said Monday. “They need to find a place quick, and with that urgency, they could end up paying a lot more.”
Garland declined to comment Tuesday morning, citing pending litigation. He said Dec. 29 that he had continued efforts to help tenants find and afford housing options but that he was receiving fewer responses, which he attributed to the likelihood of an imminent legal challenge.
The lawsuit also seeks to recoup the plaintiffs’ security deposits from Garland, which it states equaled one month’s rent.
The outstanding deposits totaled $8,747 on Dec. 9, according to a memorandum that Bielagus filed with the lawsuit. That figure is now lower because Garland has since returned some of them, Bielagus said Monday.
“These people are going to need their deposits back in order to move on [to new housing],” he said.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday morning, though Bielagus said it is unlikely that Eco-Village residents will be awarded damages so quickly.
In addition to alternative housing, the plaintiffs are demanding the return of all rent payments made by any Eco-Village tenants who lived on the site when its structures were unpermitted.
“If … [Garland] represented that he was leasing habitable structures to them, then he did not fulfill his responsibilities,” Bielagus said.
He did not know Monday how many people may be eligible for compensation based on that claim because it is unclear when the gas and electrical connections were installed at the Eco-Village and when each of the unpermitted tiny homes, known as “casitas,” were built.
Peterborough officials approved the cottages as “transient housing” for staff at the nearby Well School — without gas or electrical connections — when they were constructed in the mid-2000s, according to a Dec. 14 news release from the town. The casitas were added to the site beginning in 2009, Eco-Village resident Mark Wilson said last month.
Thirteen former Eco-Village residents, all of whom were among those forced to leave last month, had joined the class-action suit as of Monday, according to Bielagus.