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Vacant housing, school drawing Brunswick police attention to McKeen Street

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Vacant housing, school drawing Brunswick police attention to McKeen Street

BRUNSWICK — The old high school on McKeen Street has long been the center of attention for residents and town officials, even as most of its classrooms were overtaken by neglect.

But ever since the decision was made two years ago to demolish the building to make way for a new elementary school, the old structure has drawn new visitors. 

And not all of them are there for the nostalgia.

Last Saturday, at 2:40 a.m., a routine police patrol spotted two flashlights flickering inside what is now a fenced demolition site. Police arrested a 17-year-old from Harpswell on a charge of criminal trespass, as well as Nicholas Wilson, 33, also of Harpswell, on the same charge.

Police said it's unclear what the two individuals were doing amid the rubble, but they say if it's like previous incidents that have taken place at the old high school, it probably wasn't lawful.

"We've had ongoing issues of people entering the old school since (the Town Council) decided to demolish it," Cmdr. Kevin Schofield said. "It's been everything from curious onlookers, to vandalism, to trespassing. ... Of course, now that it's a demolition site we're concerned that some people will cause themselves harm, but it's been an area of focus for us for quite some time."

This week members of the Town Council called for additional police patrols at the site and better supervision by contractors to prevent individuals from wandering into a hard-hat zone. Councilor David Watson has led the charge, warning potential trespassers that what they would be committing is a crime. 

But police say the razing of the high school has drawn additional attention to a problem that's diverted resources for years: A semi-abandoned building with fewer and fewer people to deter criminal activity.

In fact, the same issue has sparked concerns further west on McKeen Street, as neighbors of rapidly vacating military housing worry that the empty properties will draw vandals and vagrants. 

As additional squadrons depart Brunswick Naval Air Station to meet the 2011 closure deadline, it's an issue that could gain more prominence, potentially stretching what police say is an already overextended patrol force.

"Some neighbors in the McKeen Street area have requested additional patrols," said acting Town Manager Gary Brown, adding that he hoped "raising the flag" would assure residents in the area that they're not alone amongst the vacant houses. 

Brown said there haven't been any incidents in the military housing area, despite its 154 total units being empty.

"The additional patrols there are purely an effort to reassure residents that there continues to be a police presence in their neighborhood," Brown said. 

Schofield, meanwhile, said the police had been preparing for increases in vacant housing for quite some time. 

"We're doing the best we can to at least be cognizant of the issues," he said. "It's not a new phenomenon. We want to make sure that neighborhood is getting periodic patrols. ... We're doing the best we can within our limited resources."

However, it remains to be seen how police and other public safety departments cope with the increased patrol area as the base approaches closure, particularly when closure threatens to put a crimp on public safety funding.

In other words, public safety crews could be asked to do more with less.

"All these facilities will be empty at one point," Schofield said. "And the responsibility will fall on our shoulders to patrol them. ... It's definitely a challenge, but we're looking internally to be as efficient as we can."

"We're not going to be blindsided," he added. "But it's a perfect storm for our town to grapple with."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net