CARIBOU, Maine — The owner of the former Birds Eye vegetable processing site on the corner of Fort Street and U.S. Route 1 has a month to put together a plan to clean up the property.
Steve Nasiff of Nasiff Land LLC of Berkley, Massachusetts, met with the Caribou City Council on June 23 for a public hearing on a proposal to have his buildings declared dangerous and possibly demolished.
The majority of councilors, save for Councilor Kenneth Murchison Jr., agreed to declare the buildings on the site dangerous as reported to the council by Code Enforcement Officer and Assistant City Manager Tony Mazzucco.
In his report to the council, Mazzucco outlined six structures that required immediate attention, including the main building; the accessory building, located between the main building and the freezer building; the freezer building, which is the big blue building next to Route 1; a storage shack; a guard shack; and another accessory building closest to the corner of the Fort Street and Route 1 intersection.
“It is my professional opinion that (these buildings) are structurally unsafe, unstable, unsanitary, are unsuitable for use or occupancy, constitute a hazard to health and safety because of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, and abandonment … and that the buildings should be disposed of being demolished and removed in accordance with applicable state and local laws,” the assistant city manager wrote.
Nasiff had an opportunity to address the council during the public hearing. Before apprising the officials on his work at the complex, he said that, from driving by the site, it looks like “not a blessed thing has gone on there.”
“One good thing out of it — and you have to take this away — it’s clean. It’s in the middle of your town, and it’s clean. And I cleaned it,” Nasiff said. “And I’m going to finish cleaning it, and I apologize for the unsightliness but we’ll look at getting that taken care of, and I’ll give you a plan because I have no reason not to. I’m on this ASAP.”
Since obtaining ownership in 2003, Nasiff said he has done an extensive environmental cleanup of the site and has taken care of what was in the buildings while attempting his own redevelopment project.
When that project did not come to fruition, nor did other business opportunities, Nasiff sold two sections of the property to a nonprofit and a local businessman.
“Neither one of these sales would have been made if the buildings weren’t there, so there is some value in the buildings,” Nasiff said, clarifying that he wasn’t there to tell the councilors that all of the structures on the property were worthy of development.
During the meeting, he agreed with Mayor Gary Aiken’s assessment that some of the buildings could be “kicked over by two guys.”
But Nasiff defended the possibilities for other buildings such as the freezer building alongside Route 1.
“I think the freezer building requires someone to go in there and see how the roof is, because that’s the major issue. Obviously, structurally it’s fine,” he said, adding that the door would have to be closed up and he explained that a hole was created on the south side of the building because his company intended to put rail through there.
“I’m not an engineer, it looks like a nice building to me from the inside. I know it doesn’t look great from the outside,” Nasiff told the council, defending his decision to not have demolished the buildings. “I don’t know what it costs to put up a 32,000-square-foot building, but I hate to (demolish it) if I can use it.”
He also outlined that potential businesses would be more attracted to a site with existing buildings than having to build from scratch and he said that if the facilities existed in Portland, he would have been able to sell them already.
Councilors asked Nasiff if he had a timeline for cleaning up the site, and he responded “ASAP.”
“As soon as I have the numbers, I have to get it done. You guys know that there’s a short window. I have no motivation to leave it the way it is. I need to move and groove on it, and I have to see something happen there,” he said.
Nasiff also commented that he had aspirations for parts of businesses there, but told the council that it would be premature to discuss them that evening.
He also mentioned that he had been mistakenly under the impression that the city wanted to purchase the site.
As Nasiff has owned the property for 11 years, Aiken questioned why the councilors should believe him now.
“Tell me why I should believe now you’re going to do all this stuff ASAP, when really, you haven’t done anything for 11 years,” Aiken said, after listening to Nasiff list off his work on the site.
Aiken also emphasized that Caribou just had a fire in a deserted building, which is speculated to have been started by kids.
“But you have the prime location for those things to happen and maybe next time they don’t get out,” the mayor stressed. “And it’s the biggest eyesore in this community — everybody mentions it, everybody that comes into this community to visit says ‘What is that? Why would you have something like that right on the main highway where someone comes in to look at it?’”
Murchison agreed with the public danger posed by the structures and reiterated that the overarching concern in the city was that the property is unsecured.
“It’s been on YouTube — kids running through there with the raccoons and rats — it’s dangerous,” he said.
“We had a building in the city that did collapse under the snowfall, it was catastrophic. If that (freezer building) comes down by itself, it’s going to blow stuff all the way to the river,” Murchison added.
Nasiff defended the structures and the work that he’s done on the site.
“I totally understand that as you drive by there, you cannot by any objective measure or subjective measure, see what’s gone on there because it’s been esoteric, it’s about environmental (clean up),” Nasiff said. “I do want to tell you I bought the site, I’ve paid you people tens of thousands of dollars in taxes and I don’t go to school, I don’t have kids in school, I paid money into the town … I’ve had things (stolen) from there — that’s how it is.”
Nasiff clarified that he wants to clean up the site and wants to work with the town, not against it.
“If I haven’t been perceived as a good neighbor, I’m sorry. I tried to do some projects there, they didn’t happen. Everybody wishes something great could pop in out of the sky, it doesn’t happen,” he said. “You can’t fault me for trying; we did try, and I lost a lot of money trying.”
Caribou Fire Chief Scott Susi spoke at the public hearing as well, attesting to the state of the buildings depicted in the pictures from Mazzucco’s report.
He also explained that because of the condition of the buildings, emergency personnel could not enter them should anything happen inside. If, for example, a fire broke out in one of the buildings, Caribou firefighters would not be able to go inside to make sure no one was in it.
“There have been kids coming in and out of those, and securing those buildings in my mind is more than a piece of plywood on a corner with a screw on it,” Susi said. “I’m thinking big, big fencing jobs if they’re going to remain up, or somebody on site 24 hours a day to keep people out of them, just for peace of mind and for reasons of liability.”
Susi also was disheartened to learn that Nasiff does not have insurance on the former Birds Eye site.
The council ultimately approved a 30-day window for Nasiff to develop a plan to clean up the property.
“What’s the city’s position going to be if this is impossible to pull off in the timeframe allotted?” questioned Murchison, who opposed the 30-day agreement made by the council. “Are we prepared to take this property and do something with it?”
Aiken responded that action will be determined at the end of the 30 days, and taking control of the property wouldn’t necessarily have to be the next step.
Aiken also thanked Nasiff for attending the public hearing.
“We all wish you luck, because we all want the same thing,” he said.
The next meeting of the Caribou City Council is 7 p.m. Monday, July 14, in the council chambers.