Fire-damaged building fuels discussion in Brunswick

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Should town require repair or demolition of ‘casualty’ buildings?

BRUNSWICK — Little has changed at 16-18 Oak St. since the back half of the apartment building was claimed by a fire in April.

Charred roof beams still overhang the sides of the building, and there is a gaping hole in the rear.

According to Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Hutchinson, the building’s owner, Jeffrey Matthews, who could not be reached for comment, is negotiating a settlement with his insurance company. But until then, as long as the building is secure, there is little else the town can do.

But that’s not the case everywhere.

At least three towns in Maine – Oakland, Medway and East Millinocket – have property maintenance ordinances that require property owners to make plans to repair or demolish structures within 90 days after a “casualty,” defined as “any unforeseeable, unintended accident affecting a property.” The code enforcement officer may grant extensions in the case of financial hardship.

After hearing the details of the Oak Street case, Mike Noble, code enforcement officer for Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, said his ordinance “gives the town some authority in the case exactly like you’ve just mentioned to prompt the owner to do something.”

In Oakland, code enforcement officer Bob Ellis has used his town’s property maintenance ordinance to compel five property owners to clean up or tear down their dilapidated buildings. He also has received court orders of demolition under Maine’s “dangerous buildings” law, which allows a municipality to tear down a building that had been deemed dangerous or a nuisance, and bill the owner for the demolition.

Noble also brought up the state statute, and wondered if it was a tool Brunswick could use.

But Hutchinson said 16-18 Oak St. wouldn’t qualify because it has not been compromised to the point that it must be torn down.

“It’s basically is not a dangerous building, it’s not in danger of falling down,” he said.

As for a property maintenance ordinance, he said Brunswick simply does not have the staff to enforce one even if it were on the books.

But some residents of the Oak Street neighborhood are asking for just that.

“I would like the town to have a property maintenance code that would establish legally binding expectations and penalties for the owners of vacant and abandoned buildings,” Anne Marr, a Cumberland Street resident, said in an email.

DeWitt Kimball, who owns the Cabot House Condos at 20-22 Oak St., also wants to see the town enact a property maintenance ordinance.

“The town needs to step up and have some policies, if the building is in such bad shape that it’s affecting the property values around it, the owner needs to fix the building or tear it down,” he said.

But property maintenance ordinances are difficult to pass, said Bath City Manager Bill Giroux, whose City Council voted down such a proposal last January after deciding it would be difficult to enforce.

“You’re talking about the government telling private property owners what to do with their property,” he said. “It goes well beyond traditional zoning.”

He also said it would be difficult to create an ordinance like the one in Oakland, Medway and East Millinocket that requires repairing a damaged building.

“You have to define what a major disaster is … you’d have to somehow put in writing, ‘damaged by fire,’ then the question is, to what extent and who evaluates that,” Giroux said.

Councilor Margo Knight, who represents the Oak Street neighborhood, said she  has been following other communities and has not found a property maintenance ordinance she believes would work in Brunswick.

“I would love to find one that works without detrimental unintended consequences,” like creating financial hardship for a property owner, Knight said.

Council Chairman Joanne King agreed.

“You shouldn’t have to look at the remains of a building forever and ever,” she said, but “in this economy … how are you going to tell somebody … they need to do something to their building?”

Even Noble acknowledged that the property maintenance ordinance in the Millinocket area has produced mixed results.

“The good part is, when you get a situation like what you’re dealing with (in Brunswick), you have the means to address it through the court system,” he said. “The bad side is … it’s common that you end up with unintended consequences,” like someone who will invoke the ordinance to get back at a neighbor he doesn’t like, and if it falls under the ordinance, Noble has to enforce it.

“It’s good when you need it, and bad when you don’t,” he concluded.

Questions about the future of the Oak Street building remain unanswered because, as Hutchinson noted, as long as the building is secure, “we can’t require (Matthews, the building owner) to give us an update on a daily or weekly basis.”

Town Manager Gary Brown said he has had two or three conversations with Matthews, but didn’t have any specific information about what Matthews plans to do.

And because Matthews didn’t return messages left for him, it’s unknown what, if anything, is happening at 16-18 Oak St.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

Six months after a fire, charred roof beams still hang over the side of 16-18 Oak St. in Brunswick. Some residents believe the city needs an ordinance that could force property owners to repair or demolish “casualty” buildings.

16-18 Oak Street, photographed on Oct. 11.