Augusta councilors table proposal to declare Kennebec Arsenal dangerous property

This Thursday photo shows the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta. City councilors gave the historic property’s owner a month to present a plan to address a host of concerns with the site before they consider declaring it a dangerous property. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — City councilors are attempting to force the owner of the historic but deteriorating Kennebec Arsenal property to address the city’s concerns with the site before it considers declaring it a dangerous property, which could result in the city taking ownership.

Owner Tom Niemann has not made good on claims he would redevelop and preserve it in the 15 years since he acquired the riverside site from the state, councilors said. But they voted Thursday to give him one more month to provide plans to address a host of issues ranging from broken windows and deteriorated mortar to structures that are on the verge of collapsing.

City officials expressed a lack of faith in the ability of Nieman, who uses the business name Main Street 1, to come up with or act on a legitimate plan to preserve and redevelop the prominent property, but agreed to give him more time to do so after hearing from a neighbor who said she still has confidence in him and his plans for the site and fears starting over, potentially with a different owner, could further delay any progress there.

“I’m very torn on this issue. Obviously I am not doing this for Main Street 1 — as far as I’m concerned Mr. Niemann has used up every ounce of goodwill that he’s due from this community,” said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, who — after a pause so long Mayor Mark O’Brien began to move ahead with the public hearing process — made the motion to table the matter, with a second by At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot. “But I have a good constituent here tonight, one of the closest neighbors to this property, that has asked for more time, so I would honor that request.”

Councilors were also asked by Niemann’s attorney, Eric Wycoff, to delay their consideration of a proposal to declare the property dangerous under state dangerous buildings statutes. He warned the 10-days’ notice of Thursday’s proceedings may not have been adequate due process and didn’t give them enough time to prepare a response. Wycoff said Niemann hired him to work on the issue the night before the council meeting, after Niemann was unsuccessful in getting other lawyers to represent him. He said a delay of the vote on the dangerous buildings issue would give time for Niemann to better prepare a plan to address the city’s concerns or, alternatively, for him to work with the city to see if the issues can be resolved.

“This is a serious issue, and I think it is a due process issue that (Niemann) has only had 10 days’ notice of this issue,” Wycoff said.

The National Historic Landmark collection of eight granite buildings, built by the federal government between 1828 and 1838, is considered by some preservationists to be among the best and earliest surviving examples of 19th century munitions depots in the country.

Councilors voted 6-1 to table the issue Thursday, so Niemann now has until July 28 before councilors are, again, scheduled to consider declaring the property includes dangerous buildings.

Peeling paint and boarded up windows are seen Friday on one of the buildings of the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta. City councilors gave the historic property’s owner a month to present a plan to address a host of concerns with the site before they consider declaring it a dangerous property. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

At-Large Councilor Abigail St. Valle, who provided the lone vote against tabling, said if the council were to table the matter, it should only wait until July 14.

A dangerous building may be declared, under state statute, when officials determine buildings are structurally unsafe and unstable; unsuitable for occupancy; and constitute a health or safety hazard because of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, obsolescence or abandonment.

Problems cited by city officials as making the mostly granite-block buildings of the Arsenal worthy of being deemed dangerous, after Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton’s visits to the property, include: Exteriors of all buildings being inadequately maintained and dilapidated, including chipping lead-based paint on all buildings; broken or boarded up windows and doors; missing and deteriorated mortar on several buildings creating a risk of loose or falling debris; stone and wooden elements on all buildings such as trim, fascia, soffits and siding that are rotted or damaged; wooden structures, including porches, that are structurally unsound, sagging and at risk of collapsing; all chimneys in a state of disrepair; driveways, walkways and parking areas on the property in disrepair; and paved areas that are inadequately maintained.

Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, said the buildings also have a multitude of problems in their interiors, and those problems, would be added to the list once a public hearing on the dangerous buildings proposal moves forward.

When a municipality declares a building to be dangerous it can order the owner to address the identified problems within a certain amount of time. In the Arsenal’s case a draft of the proposal would allow 90 days, though Langsdorf said it is up to councilors to decide how long a timeframe to allow. If no action is taken, which can be as simple as filing a plan to address the problems, the city can step in, have contractors fix the issue, or even have the building torn down. The owner is then billed for the costs. And if no payment is received, the city can place a lien on the property and could, ultimately if the lien isn’t paid off, take ownership.

This July 2010 aerial photo shows the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Davis, an abutter to the Arsenal property, said she wanted time to meet with her Eastern Avenue neighborhood residents to discuss the fate of the Arsenal, and said she still believes in Niemann’s original plans for the property, which included a mixed-use development with residences, offices, a restaurant and retail shops. She said those plans are better than a more recent proposal from Niemann that was not well-received by officials or neighbors, to create a treatment facility for veterans on part of the Arsenal campus. And she said she’s seen employees of Niemann working on the property. 

Resident Connie Hanson, who with other citizens last year formed Concerned Citizens for Augusta Historical Preservation of the Kennebec Arsenal, said Niemann has had more than enough time and has failed to live up to his promises made 15 years ago when he bought the property from the state, with a down payment of $280,000 and covenants requiring him to preserve, maintain and repair the property to preserve its value as an historic place.

Niemann, briefly reached by phone Friday, said he did not have time to talk about his plans for the property at that time. He didn’t answer a follow-up call.

Langsdorf said he met with Niemann earlier in the week and what was presented then didn’t, to him, appear to be a concrete plan that indicated resources were available to be used or that contractors had been lined up to take on the work necessary to address the city’s concerns with the property.

Langsdorf said the city is also, separate from the dangerous buildings effort, pursing action in district court against Niemann for alleged land use violations for a lack of maintenance at the property.

Niemann was sued for his handling of the Arsenal by the state in 2013, in a lawsuit that claimed he hadn’t adequately preserved or maintained the buildings. The case was later dropped after both sides reached an agreement in which Niemann committed to better maintaining the site. And in 2017 the Greater Augusta Utility District initiated foreclosure proceedings because Niemann hadn’t paid $60,000 in storm water fees, but those proceedings were halted when that bill was paid.

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