BELFAST, Maine — With the help of some creative legal work, two historic downtown structures are closer to being back on the property tax rolls.
The Waldo County Commission has a plan to remediate and renovate the former jail and jailer’s house on Congress Street. The buildings were left largely vacant after the county built a new jail and a new public safety building behind the old jail.
The wood frame building that fronts on Congress Street was built in 1887 as the jailer’s residence. Until the late 1970s, the county sheriff lived there as part of his compensation. Then-Sheriff Stan Knox lived in the building until it was converted into offices for the sheriff’s department in 1980.
Directly behind the house, and connected to it, is the red brick old jail, built in 1851. The first jail was built between 1828 and 1829, but replaced.
Both buildings have problems, County Commissioner William Shorey said, with lead-based paint and asbestos identified in each. Since the county is not able to apply for grants to address such issues, however, officials have been in a quandaryabout what to do with the structures.
But while working with the city of Belfast on the issue, county officials learned of a way to create a separate legal entity that could take ownership of the buildings and apply for available funding to work on them.
The two buildings have been transferred to Congress Street Hill Property LLC, Shorey said, using condominium law so the new corporation owns just the buildings and none of the land on which they and the new facilities sit. The corporation is controlled by the county.
Shorey compared the legal arrangement to what is used on city streets where buildings share common walls yet separate ownership.
“In southern New England, this would be as standard as baked beans,” he said. But such an approach seemed unique for local government.
“I don’t think we’ve encountered a county doing this,” Shorey said.
The condo idea was suggested by Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall. The Belfast Planning Board approved the transfer at a meeting two weeks ago. Neighbors, some of whom were critical of the county for building the new jail and public safety building adjacent to a residential area, have been supportive of the plan, he said.
“This is a community that loves to see historic buildings repurposed,” said County Clerk Barbara Arsenault.
The city also has been helpful in addressing the environmental problems with the buildings, paying about $20,000 toward environmental evaluations of the structures from a $400,000 grant it received for so-called brownfield assessment.
Shorey said the cost for the complete remediation of both buildings is estimated at $200,000, with a county match of $40,000 required. Now that separate ownership has been established through the Congress Street Hill Property LLC, that entity is applying for grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency. The application is due next week.
Arsenault has been working diligently to prepare a persuasive application, Shorey said. Supporting letters from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Maine Preservation, the Belfast Historical Society & Museum, the city of Belfast and Waldo County General Hospital are being included.
The old jail is essentially a brick shell with 20-foot-high ceilings and about 2,500-square-feet of space, Shorey said. Granite had separated the cells, but that has been removed. The structure could be seen as a blank slate for redevelopment.
The house, with about 4,000-square-feet of space, got high marks by the Maine Preservation group, Shorey and Arsenault said, because the original small rooms and distinctive moldings remain intact.
If the county wins the EPA grant, marketing will be a challenge since just six parking spaces are available with the buildings, Shorey said. The house might become a duplex, and the old jail might be used in a commercial capacity that drew few people in cars, such as an architect, Arsenault suggested.
On the plus side, a state historic preservation fund could be tapped for the renovation and special tax credits covering up to 45 percent of the redevelopment costs could be available. The county doesn’t want to sell the buildings as is, but rather redevelop and then sell them, so as to control what becomes of the property.
“We could’ve kept driving by the buildings and looked the other way,” Shorey said, but he and the other commissioners concluded that it would irresponsible, to both taxpayers and neighbors, to do so.