FRYEBURG, Maine — Acknowledging blowback from Fryeburg and surrounding communities in a hearing Tuesday night over the closing of the Fryeburg Registry of Deeds building, Oxford County commissioners backed away from a plan to operate the office two days a week.
The commissioners agreed to maintain normal operating hours until closure conditions are met to maintain local access to the records.
The Fryeburg Registry is a subregistry for the county and maintains deed records for western Oxford County; the main registry office is located at the country seat in South Paris, Maine. The Maine Legislature last year passed a law, LD 1679, allowing for closing the registry.
Oxford County Commissioners Steve Merrill of District 1 and Chairman Dave Duguay of District 2 attended the hearing on the office's closure, and Oxford County Register of Deeds Cherri Crockett said 24 people signed in to the meeting.
On Feb. 7, Crockett and commissioners sent a letter to the town of Fryeburg stating the final day to record documents in the Fryeburg office would be March 29, and all documents would be recorded at the South Paris registry building beginning April 1. Additionally, Fryeburg’s registry would only operate on Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and Fridays, 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., until the closure later this year.
Under LD 1679, the county must meet seven conditions in order to close the registry building. They are:
• The county must conduct at least two public hearings in the area covered by the towns of Hiram, Porter, Brownfield, Denmark, Fryeburg, Sweden, Lovell, Stoneham and Stow. The hearings must be conducted at least 90 days prior to the vote to close the registry office. Tuesday's hearing was the first to be conducted; the date for a second hearing has not been announced.
• The county must vote to close the western subregistry office in Fryeburg on a specific date.
• All historical maps and plot plans on display or available at the western subregistry office must be duplicated, and copies must be offered and provided to member towns for display or for the towns to make available at their town offices.
• The county must make provisions for the preservation of, and public access to the record books of the western subregistry of deeds.
• The county must provide online access to all files and documents of the Oxford County Registry of Deeds and the western subregistry of deeds.
• The county must make electronic recording of documents available in the Oxford County registry of deeds and the western subregistry of deeds.
• The county must provide electronic recording of documents at no additional cost or surcharge to municipal governments in Oxford County.
Fryeburg officials and others from surrounding communities said the county has not met the conditions and so has overstepped the law by cutting hours of operation at the Fryeburg registry.
At the time of the legislation’s approval the Fryeburg registry’s operating hours were Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and as stated in Section 3 of LD 1679, “the Oxford County register of deeds shall operate a western subregistry office in the town of Fryeburg at the same location as the former western registry district office, and the office must be open for recording and research activities during normal business hours.”
On Feb. 8, David Hastings of Hastings Malia Attorneys at Law sent a letter to Crockett and the commissioners saying the Feb. 7 order was “extremely surprising.”
“This is in total violation of the statutory provision regarding closure of the Fryeburg Registry … I can only assume that your Feb. 7 order was based on a misreading of the statute,” the letter said.
Hastings’ letter requested a withdrawal of the order and adherence to normal business hours until all conditions under the statute are met.
Fryeburg Town Manager Sharon Jackson said “Their (the county’s) explanation of normal business hours doesn’t meet any logical explanation that we or anyone else could agree to either.”
Concerning the seven conditions for closing the Fryeburg office, Jackson said, “They are working on them but none have been met.”
In the county’s explanation as to why they proposed curtailed hours, commissioners said Fryeburg is operating with one clerk “who cannot advance her day’s work until it is verified,” and the county cannot spare a worker for Fryeburg from elsewhere and has no plans to hire more.
Service could be provided using the U.S. Postal Service, E-Recording, FedEx and UPS, and would be “a most efficient way of filing for both the Oxford County registry and western Oxford County registry users.
The county's explanation also said, “Many of WEST town offices aren’t open five days a week” and the commissioners consider the two-and a-half-days as “normal business hours.”
Jackson said the county agreed at Tuesday’s hearing to not close until all seven conditions are met and “the office will remain open five days,” she said.
Legislation was introduced in December 2017 to close the Fryeburg Registry of Deeds. The bill was sponsored by Reps. Tom Winsor (R-Norway) and Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford).
Jackson said in March 2018 she, Attorney David Hastings, Attorney Craig Holden, Elbridge Russell and Denmark Town Manager Bert Kendall challenged LD 1679 in Augusta, Maine, with testimony against the bills’ terms.
Rep. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram) helped pass revisions to LD 1679, including the seven conditions the county must meet prior to the closing.
Selectman Kimberly Clarke, who attended the hearing, said closing down the Registry of Deeds in Fryeburg would place an undue burden on those who use its services, if the records were moved to South Paris and were not digitalized for online access.
“The law doesn’t allow closing before they are put online,” she said.
Looking ahead, Clarke said the deed building’s small size limits its use but said establishing an art gallery inside would “be an amazing thing” for the downtown area.
Jackson said the county still plans to move Fryeburg’s records to South Paris and close the building by December 2019. She said the county hasn’t given any more details on a timeline.
“They haven’t decided what to do with it yet,” she said.