ELLSWORTH—“It’s like quicksand. Just when you feel like you’ve gotten your feet under you, something changes,” said Judy Blood, a former school teacher and resident of Ellsworth Falls who has been fighting to save the former Ticonic firehouse from being demolished. Blood was speaking at her home on Sunday afternoon, seated across from a window looking out over the decaying building.
The quicksand gave way again on Monday evening, when Ellsworth City Councilors voted unanimously to send Blood’s request to rescind a demolition permit issued in September back to the city’s Board of Appeals. In October, the board heard Blood’s appeal to rescind the permit but voted to send the matter to City Council, which took the issue up in November and again on Monday night.
On Monday, councilors acted in part on the recommendation of Kate Grossman, a Bangor attorney brought in to consult on the matter after it was revealed that city attorney Edmond Bearor works for a law firm that has also represented Webber Energy (then Webber Oil Co.), which bought the property from the city in 2005 for $5,000.
At a council meeting in November, John Hamer, an attorney representing the city, said there was no conflict of interest unless the city voted to pursue litigation against Webber. But councilors voted to bring in an independent attorney to offer recommendations on the matter.
Bearor had advised the city that he did not believe the Board of Appeals had the jurisdiction to hear Blood’s appeal, but Grossman disagreed.
“Council does not have the authority to rescind a permit,” said Grossman. “I think it actually needs to go back to the Board of Appeals for that board to take action,” she continued. “They can’t just give out their authority to somebody else. I’m not sure what the council would have the authority to do other than just express a sentiment.”
Grossman noted in a letter to City Manager David Cole that it is unlikely the Board of Appeals will vote to rescind the permit even if it does take up the issue. “Webber acquired the property free of any covenants; it is likely that the Board would find that the CEO [code enforcement officer] committed no error, and that the approval of the demolition permit was not contrary to the Ordinance.”
Blood and other residents hoping to save the building have argued that documents drawn up before the property was sold, such as a request for proposals, should be legally binding. But Grossman said there is little precedent for this.
“Once there’s a deed and it’s signed, does that overtake the offer and acceptance documents in the way of a purchase and sale?” Grossman asked.
“I think that the law is clear that it does …Nobody on either side of the transaction has suggested that they made a mistake in that deed.”
The building, along with another lot owned by Webber Energy, recently went up for sale. An agent for The Boulos Company, which is listing the property, confirmed that the 3.37-acre lot and buildings at 4 and 10 Bangor Road are listed for $275,000. Blood has said she would like to buy the building back from the company but can’t afford to do so at that price.
Blood, along with longtime Ellsworth Falls resident Rebecca Maddocks-Wilbur and Historical Society President Terri Weed Cormier, have been fundraising to help preserve the building.
“We’re getting non binding verbal commitments of money,” said Blood in an interview before Monday’s meeting.
The group has commitments for around $30,000, said Blood, who is working with a professional fundraiser.
“But it’s really awkward because I don’t own the building; the city doesn’t own the building.”
As of Sunday, Blood said she had asked for documents from Webber related to purchasing the building but had not received them.
Blood is also pursuing National Historic Registry status for the former firehouse, which can be done without the support of a building’s owner. As of last Thursday, her application was still active, said Blood.
“My hope is that because my initial application didn’t get junked the council will say ‘wait, what is going to happen with this.’”
To be eligible for the status (and in turn, eligible for grant money for restoration), said Blood, the building cannot be moved.
Webber officials have been largely silent on the matter and have not spoken at any meetings or to the media.
Speaking to councilors before the vote on Monday, Blood acknowledged that there may not be legal standing to rescind the permit. “But now, let’s do the right thing. Let’s negotiate with Webber, let’s get the building back into the hands of the people who love it, let’s do the right thing with it.”
Several councilors said they would welcome an outside group caring for the building but said they did not want the city to have ownership of the property.
“I can’t put my hand up and spend taxpayer dollars,” said Councilman Gary Fortier. “That’s why we got rid of it in 2005.”