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A Never-Ending Home Construction Project Vexes a Queen City Hood

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The front of 97 Dunder Road - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • The front of 97 Dunder Road

Beautiful, pricey homes with trim lawns line a dead-end street in Burlington's South End. Runners jog and children play along the quiet tract. Situated by Oakledge Park and Lake Champlain, it cuts through one of the Queen City's most desirable neighborhoods.

Smack-dab in the center, though, 97 Dunder Road stands out. The property has no driveway, lawn or apparent owner — only a plywood-wrapped building painted white with a few windows near the eaves.

It's clearly a work in progress. Indeed, construction started in July — of 1969. No one, save for the stray transient or two, has ever lived in Burlington's longest-vacant "home."

Forty-eight years later, the City of Burlington may finally have had enough. Last month, officials filed a complaint against the homeowner, Don Albertson, in environmental court, citing zoning violations. Neighbors wonder if that will finally compel the 83-year-old North Dakota native to get it together after decades of stop-and-start construction.

"To him, it's just a dream, a hobby, but we've got to put up with this building," said Albert St. Amand, who first moved to Dunder Road in 1974 and lives directly across the street from the property. "Forty-eight years is an adequate amount of time to finish building."

The house, posted with "No Trespassing" signs, is two stories tall and about 2,100 square feet, according to plans filed with the city. It's 15 feet from the sidewalk on less than half an acre, surrounded by trees and a pine needle-covered yard. Around back, exposed wood beams indicate where a second-floor balcony would be built. Cinderblocks are piled in the yard next to a stack of boards covered by a tarp.

Neighbors say the place is an eyesore on a desirable street. Dunder Road is home to 25 properties, which have an average assessed value of $473,844. Albertson's place is assessed at just $231,000.

For Albertson, though, Lot 54 — as it was known when he paid $6,500 for it in 1966 — is the location of his future dream home. The talkative Burlingtonian detailed the property's history, and his struggles with it, during an interview last Thursday at his current residence on Pine Street, just a mile or so from the stalled project.

An engineer and architect by trade, Albertson worked for a firm that designed buildings in Burlington and for the Vermont State Colleges System. He had all the skills to make Dunder Road a reality. His father helped him install a foundation in 1969, and he and his wife, Carroll, got to work. Throughout the 1970s, they built the home as time and money allowed, often rolling up their own sleeves to assist on various projects.

Though it was slow going, the six-bedroom house began to take shape. But the unexpected death of the couple's son in 1982 derailed the dream.

"You never get over the loss of a child," Carroll Albertson said.

Don Albertson said he felt adrift, like the weight of the world was dragging him down. He found it hard to concentrate on the side project when so many other responsibilities — earning a living, raising a young daughter, addressing health issues — demanded his attention.

"I came up short at times," said Albertson. "That's one thing about architects: You can design a lot of things you can't afford to build. We thought we could build it in stages, with the ability to expand it."

Eventually, neighbors started complaining in earnest. Children had gotten hurt exploring the structure over the years, said St. Amand. Other times, he said, the building attracted transients who would squat inside until neighbors called police.

In 1999, the Burlington City Council adopted a vacant building ordinance to prevent neighborhood blight. It created financial disincentives: A permit to maintain an unoccupied building costs $500 per quarter and requires the property owner to meet certain standards. The city ultimately deemed 97 Dunder Road vacant in 2003, records show, subjecting Albertson to the empty-building fee going forward. He's gotten occasional waivers, but Albertson has paid a total of about $20,375 in fees since January 2006, according to the city's code enforcement office. His annual property taxes on Lot 54 are roughly $6,000.

Thirteen Burlington properties are considered vacant, according to Burlington code enforcement director Bill Ward. Of those, he said, Albertson's has been empty the longest by far.

The back of the house - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • The back of the house

In 2008, Albertson got a second wind and had plans to finish the project, he said. He'd become interested in energy efficiency and decided to make the decades-old structure an example of green-building standards. He got new zoning and building permits in 2010 and hired a contractor.

The first step was installing a new roof. The old new one had already worn out.

But Albertson appeared to have momentum. He began insulating the place, replaced boards and ordered new windows. He got permits for plumbing and electricity and cleared several trees from the property.

The work hit a wall in 2012. Albertson's zoning permit expired, though he continued working. The city filed a "formal notice of violation" in May 2013, and he applied for a new permit. Neighbors appealed and took their case to the Development Review Board in July 2013. They were irate that the city had allowed the construction to continue for so long. Joanne Yarnell, who moved to the street in 2005, told the board that it was her 60th birthday, but "I'm here because this is so important to me."

"Both my husband and I work here, and we pay a lot of taxes to live in this city," Yarnell added. "We thought this was an issue that was going to be dealt with ... I had no idea this had been going on for 40 years."

The board denied the neighbors' appeal and granted Albertson a new zoning permit with certain conditions. But by October of 2013, it was clear he was not keeping to the agreed-upon schedule. In November, neighbors again pleaded for help from the DRB.

"It's a huge distress — I think I can speak for all the neighbors — to be living on an extremely pleasant residential street with this terrible misrepresentation of inactivity and a constant construction zone," Ralph Yarnell, Joanne's husband, said at that meeting. "Reading over the documents that Mr. Albertson is presenting to you is very frustrating, because it's very clear his intentions are not what he suggests that they are, and his excuses are feeble at best."

That time, the board voted to deny the Albertsons their requested schedule adjustments, prohibiting any work until they brought the property into compliance with the zoning office. The Albertsons got their documents in order and their permit validated — but it expired in July 2014.

In February 2016, the city accused the Albertsons of violating city code for having a construction site without a proper permit. The Albertsons responded that they planned to sell the home "as is." The zoning office issued a formal violation in May 2016, which is the basis for the city's complaint filed last month in environmental court.

The Albertsons have a chance to respond. They could work out a court-ordered schedule to get new zoning permits and complete the structure, or potentially face a hefty fine — up to $200 a day dating back to last year's violation notice.

Neighbors remain skeptical about progress because they say they've heard it all before. St. Amand said he has offered to take the place off Albertson's hands several times, as recently as last year.

Mike Hennessey moved in next door to 97 Dunder a decade ago. He's so frustrated with the situation that he now leaves it to his wife to fight their battle. While they love the neighborhood, the couple has considered moving. Why pay $12,000 in taxes, he reasoned, to live next to such a place?

Hennessey isn't sure the latest development will make a difference — but he notes that few good options remain.

"Sell it or tear it down. Or sell it and tear it down," Hennessey said. "I just don't know that there's a real plan for 10 years from now. How fair is that to the rest of us?"

If fines are levied, and the Albertsons don't pay, the city could place liens on the property. If that doesn't force the issue, the property could be foreclosed — but officials don't want to resort to that, said assistant city attorney Kim Sturtevant.

"There's been permits, and then it's not been complied with," said Sturtevant. "Then they expire, then they come in again, so it's just this kind of pattern. I think we're hoping to break that pattern and move forward."

Albertson insisted that, if approached, he would have compromised with the city by now. He blamed the bureaucratic machine, which he says "scares the shit" out of homeowners with nasty letters full of incomprehensible legalese.

He also admitted it might be time to sell. He and Carroll are getting older, Albertson said, and have finally come to realize they may never complete the home. He said he's actively researching an appropriate price and the possibility of finding a buyer who might share his eco-friendly ideals.

"To sell it is almost like selling one of your children when you've put as much into it as we have," Albertson said. "And when you've gone through a great loss, it's even tougher to think about giving up a dream that meant so much. That's probably not an adequate excuse, but it is a lot of what was behind it."


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