BATH, Maine — A former Maine Superior Court judge will investigate the sale in May of a city-owned property valued at $6.5 million for approximately $800,000.
The City Council on Wednesday unanimously chose retired Justice Robert Crowley to conduct the study of the sale of the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education. The council also set a spending cap of $7,500 for the job.
Before hiring Crowley, councilors also gave initial approval to two proposals for contract zoning, including one for Bath Iron Works.
City Solicitor Roger Therriault presented councilors with several candidates who responded to his request for proposals for the investigator’s job. The council was swift and enthusiastic in its support of Crowley, who spent 28 years on the bench.
“Looking at experience, and someone who’s least likely to be considered biased, I would say that Robert Crowley … [seems] to have everything that we’re looking for,” Councilor Meadow Rue Merrill said.
In a letter that Merrill read to the council, Crowley said he would serve as an investigator on condition that he be authorized to determine how the investigation would be conducted, and would follow the evidence where it leads.
“That’s the type of person I want doing this,” Merrill said.
The city bought the Mid Coast Center, a former hospital, a decade ago for $1 and sold it to Robert Smith of Phippsburg for $799,000. The council on April 17 unanimously approved the sale.
According to the city’s online database, the building had an assessed value of $6.5 million. Paul Mateosian, the assessor and assistant city manager, has called that a “cost-approach number,” based on what it would cost to build a hospital that size, minus depreciation. He said the amount did not reflect market value.
Some residents, including Michael Wischkaemper and Larry Scott, have criticized the sale, claiming the city failed to practice due diligence in setting a price, and did not sell the building in an appropriate way. They are among those who have criticized the lack of a response from most councilors to questions they later submitted about the sale.
Wischkamper on Wednesday expressed support for the council’s decision to hire Crowley, who since his retirement in 2010 has been in a dispute resolution practice at the law firm of Kelly, Remmell & Zimmerman in Portland. His practice, according to the KRZ website, includes private judging, mediation, arbitration and “neutral evaluation of cases.”
Earlier in the meeting, the council granted first passage to two contract zone agreements; second and final passage will come at a later meeting.
One agreement is for Bath Iron Works, which plans to build a more than 51,000-square-foot outfitting hall, which will be connected to the south end of the existing Ultra Hall.
Since the 110-foot height of the outfitting hall would exceed the 75-foot maximum in the Industrial-Shipyard zone, the shipyard is seeking contract rezoning for the project; the Planning Board has approved a site plan.
Because contract rezoning requires a public benefit in exchange, BIW will create a buffer between its main parking lot and Washington Street, and give the city $65,000 for improvements to the South End Park, which will be used at the council’s discretion.
The second agreement is for the Plant Home, a Washington Street retirement community that plans to build a three-story, 48,000-square-foot building to house 45 additional units. It would tear down four of the duplexes and build two triplexes in their place.
In return, the Plant Home has offered to transfer an undeveloped 1.3-acre parcel between the Wing Farm Business Park and Ranger Circle to a group or organization that wants to assume stewardship of the property for open space and recreation purposes.
The home would also provide public access to the Kennebec River south of the facility.