HOULTON, Maine — For about six years, town officials have been negotiating with a local artist in an attempt to get him to clean up his 10-acre property at 314 Military St.
But Jerry Cardone, who maintains a home, several outbuildings and an outdoor gallery of his sculptures on the lot, has failed to make adequate progress toward that cleanup effort, they say. Armed with a recent court ruling in the town’s favor, councilors took the final steps on Monday evening to allow municipal employees to step in and finish the job.
Over the past 18 years, Cardone — who is known to some locals as “The Dinosaur Man” — has filled his yard with wood carvings and scrap metal constructions of dinosaurs, aliens, palm trees, totem poles and other pop culture pieces. The towering sculptures include Santa, Bigfoot and a rooftop gazebo in the shape of a flying saucer.
They are lined up in front of an aged 5-foot-tall wooden fence that has collapsed in some spots and that partially encloses the property that stretches about 200 yards along Route 2 in a residential part of town.
Passers-by often stop to take pictures of the curiosities, and photos of the works taken by Portland photographer Tonee Harbert were included in a 2007 exhibit at the University of Southern Maine titled “Off the Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments.” According to one write-up, the exhibit focused on “Mainers who are self-taught artists who have not exhibited before.” Later that year, the Blue Moon Gallery in Houlton also exhibited Harbert’s photos of Cardone’s work.
But residents have complained for several years to town officials and in letters to the editor of the weekly paper that the pieces in front of the fence threatened to spill out onto the roadway and that the yard was cluttered with trash that was an eyesore. Aside from the sculptures, they say the yard is littered with piles of wood, scrap metal and other raw materials Cardone collected over the years. There are also a number of animals on the property, including rabbits and cats, with some animals in cages, though the cats mainly roam free.
Houlton Town Manager Doug Hazlett said Thursday that the town first took Cardone to court about six years ago and that local officials have been through several hearings and mediation with him.
The proceedings culminated with Aroostook County Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter ruling on Nov. 15 that the property constituted an automobile graveyard and a junkyard under state statute. Hunter noted that Cardone had no town or state permits allowing him to operate such an establishment and that the property violated a town ordinance prohibiting illegal junkyards.
The property also was deemed a “public nuisance” under Houlton code.
Multiple attempts to reach Cardone this week were unsuccessful, but he told the Bangor Daily News in a 2007 interview that he knew that some people did not like his work.
“My art irritates certain people,” he said. “But if people don’t like my art, they don’t have to look at it. It is art. It’s about freedom of expression.”
Cardone said that he likes to use his art to express his religious and political views, some of which he acknowledged has been deemed by some as “offensive.”
“I get a lot of complaints, but that is art,” he said. “I’m just a simple little pop artist. Some people like it, some people don’t. I have friends who come visit me and some of them hate my art. But that’s OK.”
The Houlton town manager said this week, “The fact is, his yard has been declared an illegal junkyard. What most people see is only the sculptures and other items along the fence, but what is behind it is the biggest issue. This is 10 acres of old junk cars, rotting wood, scrap metal, buildings and animals. And there are numerous pathways in there, and along those pathways are piles of material that are more than 5 feet high.”
Court documents noted that Cardone was given until Dec. 15 to clean up the property.
Hazlett said that neighbors helped Cardone remove 12 junked cars and other trash, but not enough to satisfy the town or the court order.
“He has had plenty of time to clean up the place and to choose what goes and what stays,” Hazlett said. “He hasn’t acted, so the judge has said we can step in.”
During Monday’s council meeting, councilors authorized the use of up to $25,000 from the town’s loan repayment reserve fund to cover costs of cleaning up the property. The money was left over from a grant the town received many years ago.
Hazlett said that he is not sure how much it will take to clean up the parcel, but he believes it will cost more than $25,000. He expects that the town’s Public Works Department will tackle the majority of the job. If the cost of the cleanup goes beyond $25,000, Hazlett said he believes the town could recoup the excess from any future sale of the property.
Hazlett said Thursday that the town is not going to bulldoze the property or destroy the artwork that Cardone has created. The existing artwork will be put in a secure area on the property to preserve it for future sale. Beyond that, Cardone will have no say in the cleanup of the property.
“We are not going to destroy his art or hurt his buildings or his home or animals in any way. We want to work with him on this,” Hazlett said. “He admitted to the judge that 95 percent of the raw material that he has on the site and that he uses for sculptures is unusable due to decay. He can’t even make it into art. This has just gotten away from him and we are going to help him.
“We are going to be super-sensitive to his property,” he stressed. “I can’t say when we will begin or how long it will take, but it will get done.”
Hazlett said the metal on the property will go to a scrap dealer, and burnable material will be incinerated. Any hazardous material, such as computer parts, will be dealt with properly.
“It will go to a recycling facility or to a landfill,” Hazlett said.
The town manager acknowledged that there are differing viewpoints on the Cardone property.
“Some people say it is art, others say it is junk,” he acknowledged Thursday. “The answer is it is somewhere in the middle. But we have a court ruling and we have to follow it.”