STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — Hollie Ann Beal’s modest house sits on a low bank overlooking Muskrat Stream, where she used to watch ducks frolic from her windows — though she hasn’t been able to do that for some time.
That’s because for more than a year Beal has been embroiled in a battle with the town of Stockton Springs over the fate of the Sandy Point property, which originally was constructed in the late 19th century as a grain storage shed for the old Littlefield Store. Beal, a Bar Harbor bartender and a flea market vendor, maintains she is trying to renovate the 675 square foot structure into a simple, comfortable space.
But the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen voted in 2014 to condemn the building after declaring it a dangerous property. Beal is appealing that decision before the Waldo County Superior Court, where Justice Robert Murray heard the case earlier this month but has not yet issued a ruling.
“At this point, I just want to finish my house and live in it,” Beal said this week, acknowledging it remains a work in progress. She is upset that no matter how much work she puts into the structure, she feels the town is still telling her, “We want you to tear it down. We don’t like it.’”
However, Erik Stumpfel, the attorney for the town of Stockton Springs, said in an email sent to the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 24 that in fact the selectmen have not ordered the property to be demolished.
“The selectmen’s order instead requires correction of the dangerous conditions of the property, by Ms. Beal, within the period stated in the order,” he said.
According to the town’s final written order of May 21, 2015, Beal was ordered to make corrections to her property by July 30, 2015. She and her attorney, Aaron Fethke of Searsport, are contesting the town’s decision and the status of her property remains in legal limbo for the moment.
“I have no doubt that if we lose this appeal, the town will demolish the house,” Fethke said Wednesday.
He said the usual way to resolve this kind of property dispute would be for town officials to tell his client what they think needs to be fixed in her house and for the two parties to talk and negotiate together about the resolution.
“They wouldn’t do that,” he said. “They wouldn’t tell us the problems they saw with it. They kept it a big secret. They decided just to condemn her house.”
That is wrong, Fethke said, adding he believes the November 2014 hearing wherein the town declared Beal’s home to be dangerous was unfairly and even unconstitutionally conducted. At that hearing, he said, Beal was not allowed to examine and cross-examine witnesses but instead was told to “just sit there and listen.” He and his client believe the selectmen had made up their minds before the hearing that they wanted to condemn the house and that the town is taking such a hard line on Beal’s home because several of her wealthy neighbors have complained about her house’s appearance.
“The hearing or trial itself was so unfairly conducted — it needs to be done over,” Fethke said. “The town is trying to argue that people who are looking at their house being torn down aren’t entitled to question the code enforcement officer about it.”
When contacted last week, Stockton Springs Selectman Peter Curley and Town Manager Marnie Diffin said they had no comment on the matter and referred questions to attorney Stumpfel of Rudman Winchell in Bangor. In a brief filed at Waldo County Superior Court in November, Stumpfel wrote that the town officials had not unfairly made up their minds about Beal’s house in advance of the hearings held on the matter.
“Hollie Ann Beal was given a fair and impartial hearing by the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen on Nov. 20, 2014, with an opportunity for additional hearings after that date,” Stumpfel wrote. “Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden of proof to show that the dangerous building hearings were affected by bias or prejudice against her. The evidence presented at the select board’s hearings was fully sufficient to support the select board’s finding that Ms. Beal’s home was dangerous.”
According to the state of Maine’s dangerous building ordinance, when municipal officers find that a building or structure is structurally unsafe, unstable, unsanitary, constitutes a fire hazard, is hazardous to health or safety because of inadequate maintenance, is unsuitable for the use to which it is put or is otherwise dangerous to life or property, they may after “notice and hearing,” decide what to do with the building or structure in question.
Beal maintains she has tried to work with the town to make the required improvements to her house, which she purchased 10 years ago for $13,500. She used to live in it until 2014, when the dispute with the town began. That year, she hired a contractor to jack up the house and make it level and add a new metal roof.
The interior of the house has been gutted, and it looks like a construction site. Beal is happy to point out where the kitchen, dining room and woodstove will go, once she earns enough money to have the job finished. So far, she said, the renovation has cost about $20,000, and she estimates it will take another $15,000 to complete. For the moment, Beal is living in a house her father owns in Lamoine and is continuing to work on the house, despite it being in legal limbo.
“I miss being here all the time,” she said.
Beal even hired Robert Lermond of Alpha Omega Builders of Union to inspect her house to determine what it would need to become safe and habitable. He advised her to add structural supports to improve the building’s integrity, and when he inspected the home again several months later he found she had this work done.
However, town officials do not believe the essential problem has been solved.
“If a building is in danger of falling over and presents a hazard to its neighbors and the owner paints the porch, that doesn’t address the issue,” Stumpfel, the town’s attorney, said recently. “The selectmen found that the improvements made by Ms. Beal before and during the time that this matter has been pending do not address the issue of the basic structural integrity of the building, plus other dangerous conditions that were identified in the selectmen’s order.”
That is strange, according to Lermond, the builder, who said in a court deposition given one year ago that his professional opinion is the house is not dangerous.
“There are no immediate problems with either the exterior or interior of the home that currently leave it unsafe, uninhabitable or otherwise make it a dangerous building,” he said. “This house is not dangerous and is habitable. … In my years of experience, I have seen much worse homes that are inhabited and it is puzzling to me why the town of Stockton Springs seems so intent on targeting this home for various kinds of enforcement.”