SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — After a dozen neighbors complained about leaking sewage, the South Portland City Council on Monday declared a Mildred Street home a public nuisance.
Councilors unanimously ordered the owner of the 35 Mildred St. property, former Democratic state Rep. Christopher Muse, to fix a broken sewer pipe within 15 days, and prohibited occupancy of the home until it passes code enforcement and Fire Department inspections.
If Muse does not comply within 15 days, the ordinance permits the city to use legal action to restore the pipe.
Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette placarded the property on May 12 after an inspection revealed the building’s private sewer line was invaded by tree roots, causing sewage to flood into the basement. Doucette deemed the building “unfit for human habitation” and ordered its evacuation.
Tenants of the two rental units presumably left, but an inspection Monday and reports from neighbors confirmed Muse is still living on the premises.
Neighbors also reported Muse was pumping the contaminated water out of his basement into his backyard and driveway.
“I’m flabbergasted,” Kevin Alvarez of 40 Mildred St. told councilors.
“I’d hate to see what’s worse than pumping contaminated sewer water into the streets, where kids play,” he later added.
Doucette, who read to the council from a three-inch-thick folder containing the property’s code violation history, said over the course of four years she has placarded the building several times for the broken sewer and other health and safety concerns, including lack of proper heating, lack of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and unsafe stairways.
The four Mildred Street residents who addressed the council Monday also insisted the recent activity was not isolated, and said one family on the street sold their home because of Muse’s property.
Councilors technically could not allow prior complaints to inform their decision.
Muse defended his property, inviting councilors to the building to “see for themselves.” He said he is battling health issues, and the building is his main source of income.
He also said he found a buyer for the property, although Councilor Melissa Linscott, a real estate agent, said the lengthy bank process far from guarantees the building’s sale.
The public nuisance ordinance has only been considered against one other property since councilors enacted it in September 2012. Under the ordinance, Muse could face fines from $100 to $2,500 per day.
Councilors agreed the neighborhood’s situation had escalated enough to warrant intervention.
“It’s just a bad situation all the way around,” Councilor Linda Cohen said. “I think we have a responsibility to be good neighbors.”
Though he was hopeful for the building’s sale, Mayor Jerry Jalbert said, “I very much believe in private property rights, but there also exists private property responsibility.”
The council also authorized the sale of the former Maine National Guard Armory, passed the first reading of a new Arts and Historic Preservation Committee and approved the municipal budget and a long-term sidewalk improvement.
The council approved sale criteria for the Armory at 682 Broadway so city staff can begin advertising the property.
Staff will assess bids on the city-owned property based on price, pedestrian easement for a potential greenbelt connection, architectural easement on the front of the building and easement with the abutting police and fire departments.
The 73-year-old Armory has been empty since a tenant, Fore River Sound Stage, vacated the property in February. The city acquired the building in 2006 for $650,000, after plans for a proposed glass museum fell through.
Councilors said they hope to see bids that will invigorate the historic property.
“I can just see wheels starting to spin when people know this has hit the market, because you can’t have gone by this building year after year without thinking what it could be,” Cohen said.
Councilors also gave preliminary approval to the new Arts and Historic Preservation Committee. The nine members will work to preserve the city’s historic structures, in collaboration with the South Portland Historical Society, and will support public art.
City Manager Jim Gailey also presented final numbers for the city’s municipal budget, and funding for long-term pedestrian improvement projects for council approval.
Concrete data on the city tax rate will not be available until property assessments are done in early July, but combined with the School Department’s recently approved $37.1 million budget, residents can expect a 3.1 percent property tax increase next year.
The $18 million municipal budget for fiscal year 2015 moves several grant-funded police positions into the general fund, and adds an engineer and public works employee to the city payroll. It also includes a previously approved increase in funding for property tax assistance.
Councilors also approved more than $2.5 million in long-term grants from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System that will improve pedestrian and bike access on city roads.
Though the city must provide 25 percent of the funds, over $600,000, Gailey announced Monday the funds would come entirely from the city’s road assistance fund provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, with no impact on the city’s tax rate.