ELLSWORTH — Residents fighting to save the former Ticonic 4 Firehouse from demolition finally received a decision from a city entity on Thursday, although it wasn’t what they had hoped.
Members of the Board of Appeals voted unanimously to deny resident Judy Blood’s appeal of the issuance of a demolition permit to Webber Energy, which owns the building.
Board members also voted unanimously to lift a six-month stay on demolition that the board had previously put in place.
“I’m sympathetic to the people that came here, but we’re not the board that can affect the relief you seek,” Chairman Jeff Toothaker told the residents who had gathered in support of the building.
“I see the real issue is that the deed is done wrong,” Toothaker said.
The chairman was referring to the fact that despite a 2005 request for proposals from the city that the building go “to the most responsible proposal, not necessarily to the highest bidder,” there were no restrictions in the deed that stipulated the buyer do anything in particular to care for it.
“The City Council was in charge of this. They gave it away with the understanding that Webber was going to do something nice,” Toothaker continued. “They didn’t protect the citizens.”
Toothaker repeated several times that the Board of Appeals has no jurisdiction to alter deeds but is limited to decisions relating to violations of city ordinances.
Blood filed an appeal in September alleging that Code Enforcement Officer Dwight Tilton erred in issuing a demolition permit to Webber.
At a meeting in October, Board of Appeals members voted they did not have jurisdiction to hear Blood’s appeal because it was related to the deed rather than an ordinance.
The board put a six-month stay on the permit and sent the matter to City Council. But in December, the council, acting in part on advice from independent counsel Kate Grossman of law firm Farrell, Rosenblatt & Russell, voted to send the issue back to the Board of Appeals, where interested parties appeared on Thursday night.
Before Thursday’s meeting, Blood also filed an amended appeal alleging that Tilton erred in issuing the permit because the demolition paperwork listed the square footage incorrectly, as 3,000 rather than more than 9,000 square feet, according to Blood.
The amended appeal also alleged that Webber should have obtained a “certificate of appropriateness,” which is required by the city for destruction of a historic structure.
Toothaker acknowledged the square footage error but dismissed it as “administrative.” Tilton also acknowledged the error and said he would be contacting the company for an additional several hundred dollars in fees relating to the mistake.
In an interview after the meeting, Tilton said the city has traditionally “only charged for the footprint of the building” when issuing demolition permits.
As for the certificate, attorney Roger Huber of Farrell, Rosenblatt & Russell said the firehouse, while repeatedly having been acknowledged by city officials as historically significant, had not ever gone through the process to be officially acknowledged as such.
“This building has not been so designated [as historic], so that ordinance does not apply,” Huber said.
The ordinance “specifically refers to structures that are designated as such,” Huber said.
Blood has 30 days to appeal the board’s decision to a court, but attorneys have acknowledged at past meetings that it will likely be a difficult case to make because the deed to Webber was issued with no restrictions.
And, Blood noted on Thursday, “The 30-day appeal to the court is really moot because it could be gone in 30 days.”
Toothaker also questioned on Thursday why the city “even issues demolition permits.”
State statute requires such a permit for destruction of commercial buildings, Tilton said in an interview after the meeting, but “towns choose whether they want to do it for residential.”
Ellsworth, Tilton said, has long had an ordinance requiring a permit for residential buildings, but, he added, “We don’t really have a reason to have a demo permit.”
Tilton said permits have historically served as “a way to alert the assessor that a building’s being taken down,” so the city can assess taxes properly. They have also been used to account for demolition debris, Tilton said, which was once disposed of at the Ellsworth Transfer Station but isn’t any longer.
Blood and resident Rebecca Maddocks-Wilbur, who are part of a group leading the charge to save the structure, both expressed frustration on Thursday.
Blood called the process “municipal malarkey,” and said “The council created this problem … They have not stepped up to the plate.”
“The citizens, the taxpayers,” said Maddocks-Wilbur, “actually have no voice, and it’s really very, very clear cut that something very wrong occurred and we do not have an avenue to address that.”