BELFAST, Maine — When the Belfast City Council unanimously agreed recently to declare the former Bradbury Manor nursing home at 74 High St. a dangerous building, it was the next step on the road toward ordering the huge downtown structure to be demolished.
That road is a lengthy one, according to Bub Fournier, the director of the Belfast code and planning department. It needs to be that way, so that action on private property cannot be taken hurriedly or without proper deliberation, he said.
“The process is long,” he said. “It’s been very thorough.”
It’s uncommon for the city to get to the point of demolishing buildings — something that has happened just a couple of times in the last two years, Fournier said. In one of those instances, the problematic building was a mobile home on Baker Road, a dead-end road. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the city still heard complaints about the vacant, spray-painted building.
“It was time for it to go,” Fournier said.
The owners, who lived out of state, told the city that they wanted to demolish it, but didn’t have a way to get to Maine. When city officials told them that they would take it down and send the owners the bill, they didn’t respond.
So officials used Belfast’s property maintenance code to put a lien on the building so they could recoup the cost of taking it down, which wasn’t very expensive, he said.
“That’s the typical pathway,” he said.
In another recent case, city officials were getting complaints about two homes on Patterson Hill, which were empty except for a family of porcupines, Fournier said. People were concerned that a child could get in and hurt themselves. The city reached out to the owner, who lived in Belfast and told officials they would love to demolish the buildings but couldn’t afford to do so, he said.
The city then entered into a consent agreement with the owner, which allowed the city to demolish the property and the owner to sell it within a certain period of time and use the proceeds to pay the city back. That’s how it went, Fournier said.
“The story on Patterson Hill was actually a win-win,” he said.
On High Street, however, it is more complicated. The other structures were small, simple to demolish and had owners who at least somewhat agreed with the city’s assessment of their properties. The former nursing home is different. It’s a rambling, 17,000 square foot wooden structure in the middle of the city that has been vacant for at least 20 years and was condemned in October. According to the city’s 2020 real estate tax commitment book, its .27-acre lot is valued at $83,100, but the building itself is valued at just $6,900.
“With this one, the difference is the scope, obviously, is way bigger,” Fournier said, adding that it’s critical the city follows the correct steps. “Once we start down this road, we don’t want to wish we had done things differently.”
As well, the coronavirus pandemic has led to delays in the court process. That meant the city’s usual pathway to relief, through fines and land use violations, would likely take too long, Fournier said. So Belfast also decided to pursue relief through the state’s dangerous buildings law, which allows a municipality to hold a hearing to determine if the building should be demolished for safety concerns.
At the Belfast City Council meeting on April 20, Fournier described a host of problems with 74 High St. Those included structural and foundation issues, broken and unsafe interior stairs, and nonfunctioning plumbing and heating. Although the building is vacant and closed up, neighboring houses are very close to it and officials fear that a person might sneak inside.
“The building’s unsafe,” he told councilors. “It’s dangerous to life, health, property or safety of the public or the occupants. If a fire ever breaks out in this thing, it’s not going to be good. Anybody that’s in there or near there at the time will be in grave danger.”
James Constable of Belmont, Massachusetts, is the listed company contact for 74 High Street LLC, the owner of the building. At the public hearing, he told councilors he was frustrated with the process and felt the action they were contemplating was a bureaucratic overreach. He said he believes the building is valuable and worth saving.
“For heaven’s sake, it’s a great building in a great area,” he said. “I really feel you have one thing in your mind, which is to trash or wreck the property.”
Constable, an art researcher, said he wanted to work with the city but felt he was being unfairly harassed by Fournier and other officials.
“I am absolutely furious,” he said. “Do you guys know what the Constitution is? Do you know what due process is?”
But during their discussion, the councilors were not swayed.
“This is a process that has been going on for almost nine months,” Councilor Mary Mortier said. “It’s a fire hazard. It’s in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood. It’s actually a miracle that there hasn’t been a fire in the building in the last two decades since it’s been made vacant and in disrepair.”
Councilor Mike Hurley said he sympathized with the fact that the building is an investment for Constable. But he agreed that it is unsafe.
“It is absolutely a danger to the community,” he said. “If you want to make moves, Mr. Constable, I would say, get going. Because we can’t wait any longer … I would much rather see action. If it’s not possible, we’ll take action.”
After the discussion, the council declared the building dangerous. Councilors also agreed to a draft order that will give Constable a period of time to make a plan for demolition. Once they sign a council resolution to this effect, he will have 14 days to comply with the order. If he doesn’t do that, the city will be authorized to take some control of the building. It wasn’t immediately clear when that order would be signed.
“There’s all these things that start,” Fournier said. “The clock will be ticking.”
One way or the other, change is likely to happen, he said.
“This is something that’s been a long, long time coming,” Fournier said. “We’re pretty hopeful that the town and the people who live and work around here will see action soon.”