Orono residents offer ideas for former mill site

Posted Oct. 16, 2008, at 10:48 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — A restaurant. A center for artists. A division of the University of Maine.

Just no student housing, please, at the site of the former Webster Mill.

About 40 residents offered their opinions to town planner Evan Richert on Wednesday night at Birch Street School in a public forum on the future of the 3-acre mill site that sits at the corner of North Main and Penobscot streets, and the confluence of the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers.

The site is “very dilapidated,” Richert said, but also a “very dramatic site, and very beautiful.”

The meeting also was a chance to gauge support of the town’s plan to apply for a $200,000 brownfields grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site, which needs nearly $300,000 in work before it can be developed.

The deadline for the grant application is Nov. 14. There will be a second meeting on the issue at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 during which residents also may sign a letter to the EPA grant committee that will be incorporated into the application.

Meg Haskell, a neighborhood resident and Bangor Daily News reporter who helped coordinate Wednesday’s meeting, collected 22 signatures for the letter that makes a case for why the town should be awarded the grant.

The $300,000 cleanup estimate consists of $280,000 to remediate the soil, which contains chemicals such as arsenic and lead, and $20,000 for removal and disposal of asbestos in the building. Richert said the chemicals have not leached into the groundwater and remediation can take place on-site, which is good news for the viability of the site.

Richert also told the group the Maine Historic Preservation Commission recently judged the building eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places because it’s likely the only example of an unaltered 19th century paper mill remaining in Maine. The building is 130 years old and mill activity on the site dates back to 1796, local historian Scott Peterson told the group in a short presentation.

Should the building be placed on the register, it would be eligible for up to 45 percent tax credits, but only for a profit-making concern.

At least three groups know about the property and have expressed an interest in it, Richert said. All three are motivated by the potential tax credits.

Although the building is in serious disrepair, one of the interested groups that was looking at the site had a structural engineer analyze the building and found potential to keep it standing.

Residents had a variety of suggestions for its use, including shops and galleries, artists’ studios, a restaurant, a conference center, or offices for the University of Maine. Others said they wanted to see trails for people to explore the area.

At least two residents said they didn’t want the building used to house UMaine students. Relations are, at times, frayed between students and residents. There was at least one student in the crowd Wednesday.

The building could be used by a nonprofit entity, but in that case would not be eligible for tax breaks.

Several residents inquired about the possibility of a community garden on the site, but agricultural uses are out because of the condition of the soil.

The town owns the property, which was taken for nonpayment of taxes in November 2006. It is zoned as limited and medium density residential.

Kris Sader, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, said her main concern was consideration for people in the area who own homes and pay property taxes.

“I think their use and enjoyment of the [site] should not be inhibited in any way,” she told the group.

Town Manager Cathy Conlow stressed that people should stay away from the site while it is in disrepair and environmentally unsafe.

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