HOULTON, Maine — One year ago, the town began the massive cleanup of a nearly 7-acre property that an Aroostook County judge legally deemed an automobile graveyard and public safety hazard.
With the effort now complete, the town is focusing on paying off the money it owes for the work completed at the Military Street property owned by Jerry Cardone, a Houlton artist who along with his artwork amassed a collection of junked cars, old wood, scrap metal, plastic buckets and more at the site for more than 18 years.
During a recent Town Council meeting, Councilor Mike Jenkins inquired about the financial picture that remains now that the property has been cleaned to the town’s satisfaction. Town Manager Doug Hazlett said the municipality still owes $8,000 to entities who helped with the nearly monthlong effort, but he feels that the town can “easily” pay it off next year.
It cost more than $56,000 to clean up Cardone’s property, a total that includes in-kind labor. Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter ruled on Nov. 15, 2010, that the property constituted an automobile graveyard and a junkyard under state statute and was a “public nuisance” under Houlton code.
The town had been trying for six years to get Cardone to clean up his property, where he maintains a home, several outbuildings and an outdoor gallery of his sculptures. Town officials had received repeated complaints from residents who also wrote letters to the editor to the local newspaper, saying 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.
There were also a number of animals on the property, including rabbits and cats, with some animals in cages, though the cats mainly roamed free.
The site had become so cluttered that Cardone no longer could drive his truck onto the property, and Hunter could not walk unimpeded through the yard when he visited it last summer before making his ruling.
According to court records, Cardone admitted to the judge during proceedings that 95 percent of the raw material on the site that he used for sculptures had become unusable because of decay. Hunter o rdered that the property be cleaned up.
Hazlett said it took town associated employees 427 hours to finish the cleanup, despite the fact that neighbors of Cardone’s rallied together in the days before the cleanup to help him tow 12 junked cars from his yard.
The town spent several weeks working with outside contractors on the property last December before stopping for the winter and then resumed their effort this past May.
The metal on the property went to a scrap dealer, and burnable material was incinerated. Despite burning as much as they could, the town still accumulated $3,000 in Dumpster fees. The effort was completed in August.
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 town will seek to recoup the excess cost from any future sale of the property.
On Thursday, Hazlett said town officials will be working with the municipality’s auditor to find the best way to pay what they owe.
“We could easily pay it off early next year,” he said. “It is not a huge amount. We are going to work with the auditor for the best solution.”
Hazlett said Cardone has not made any payments to the town thus far to help them recoup what they spent on the project.
The manager added Thursday that he believes the town found a great “middle-of-the-road compromise” that allowed them to satisfy the court order while also preserving Cardone’s artwork.
Hunter’s ruling dictated that everything on the property be cleaned up with the exception of one unregistered automobile. Town officials decided to allow Cardone to keep the artwork he had already created on a secure place on the property. The artwork included wood carvings and scrap metal constructions of dinosaurs, aliens, palm trees, totem poles and other pop culture pieces.
While Cardone has his critics, he also has his supporters who have spoken out against the court-ordered cleanup. Cardone’s work has attracted local, state and nationwide attention. Photos of his work have been taken by Portland photographer Tonee Harbert and were included in a 2007 exhibit at the University of Southern Maine titled “Off the Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments.” Later that year, the Blue Moon Gallery in Houlton exhibited Harbert’s photos of Cardone’s work.
TruTV also named Cardone’s property one of its “51 Weirdest Tourist Traps in America” on its website last year.
Hazlett said the town did not harm any of Cardone’s artwork, and that the property owner was cooperative during the process.
Cardone was not available for comment Saturday. Hazlett said he was unsure if Cardone was still living there, and neighbors said they did not believe he was consistently using the property as a home.