Home is at the heart of Harpswell demolition debate

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HARPSWELL — The former home of a renowned Harpswell artist has ignited a debate between the town’s code enforcement office, the Planning Board, and nearby property owners over whether the house has been demolished without permission.

American realist painter Stephen Etnier built his home at 260 Basin Point Rd. in 1948, modelling its architecture on the iconic abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian.

After his death in 1984, ownership of the house, named “Old Cove,” was transferred to his son David, who then sold it in July 2014 to the Wood family.

In March, neighbors on Basin Point Road reported hearing loud construction noise coming from the property.

Mike Fields, of Basin Point Road, said at a meeting of the Board of Appeals on Wednesday that he immediately called the town, asking if the property owners had a demolition permit.

According to Fields, he was told the owners had received a permit from the code enforcement office for a remodeling and expansion in December 2014.

“At which point I said the building was being torn down, not being renovated,” he said.

The former Etnier home has since been demolished, leaving only its foundation in place.

But Code Enforcement Officer Bill Wells maintained that the house was not demolished, and the permit was correctly followed.

“To begin with, there’s been no violation of any kind,” he said Wednesday. “(It’s) just the normal course of business.”

Wells argues that according to the permit, which included a project narrative from architect James Herrick, the structure was in severe disrepair, and worth far less than the foundation.

Leveling the house to its foundation, therefore, preserves more than 50 percent of its assessed value, keeping it within the “reconstruction and replacement” definition of the town ordinance.

But the Planning Board and neighbors disagree.

“It doesn’t pass the straight face test,” board Chairman David Chipman said. “It was demolished.”

He said that according to the town’s most recent property assessments, the structure was valued at $371,000, and the foundation at $45,000. That means that more than half of its assessed value was destroyed.

Furthermore, the permit application never came before the Planning Board, which Chipman argues is another breach because the structure was non-conforming.

The debate even solicited a letter from former owner David Etnier, where he relayed the “personal insult I and my family feel from any suggestion that we in some way failed to keep our beloved home in good condition.”

Both the Planning Board and the codes office appealed the permit to the Board of Appeals.

On Wednesday night, the board decided not to address the question. Members voted unanimously to deny both appeals on the grounds that neither body has standing, and that the appeals had not been filed within 40 days of the permit being issued last December.

Chairman Ned Simmons said the parties could ask the board to reconsider within 10 days, or take the matter to Cumberland County Superior Court.

“We don’t have the authority to deal with (this),” board member Jim Knight said. “It’s just not within our power.”

Frustration about the lack of closure boiled out of the town office and into the parking lot after the meeting.

“I guess what it means is that there’s no sanctions if you totally violate a building permit,” Basin Point resident Robert McIntyre said.

At one point, a large group gathered around Wells and members of the Planning Board, who were exchanging heated words. Wells repeatedly referred to the proceedings as a “witch hunt,” and left soon after.

“We just don’t want to have this happen again,” Chipman said.

Burr Taylor, also a member of the Planning Board, said the demolition was nobody’s “fault,” but simply the result of poor communication between town bodies.

“Part of the problem is right now we have no town planner, and the assistant code enforcement officer left to work in Bath,” he said. Taylor said former Planner Carol Eyerman and assistant CEO Jason Marshall were in regular communication on matters like this.

If they were still both in Harpswell, “this possibly wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Edited on July 24 to correct the assessed values of the Basin Point Road structure and its foundation. 

Sidebar Elements

The former home of American realist painter Stephen Etnier at 260 Basin Point Road, Harpswell. The building has been demolished, after owners were issued a renovation permit.

Interior of Etnier’s Harpswell home, which was inspired by the abstract line paintings of modernist artist Piet Mondrian.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.