This property at the corner of Oak and Birch Streets was part of a Council discussion with public input on Apr. 19 on how the city handles abandoned and/or dangerous buildings. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY ANNE BERLEANT

City clarifies how and when it can take control of abandoned, derelict buildings

ELLSWORTH — Citing the public danger posed by neglected and/or abandoned properties in the city, Code Enforcement Officer Dwight Tilton proposed including state law on dangerous buildings in the City Property Ordinance. Councilors approved amending the ordinance 6-1 on April 19, after seeing photos of a Birch Avenue property with missing windows, open doors and a hole in the foundation large enough for a child to squeeze through — and certainly attractive to foxes, raccoons and rodents. Councilor Michelle Kaplan was the sole nay vote.

“We do not need buildings like this in Ellsworth, Maine,” Councilor Marc Blanchette said. “This should have been torn down a decade ago.”

Maine law states that municipal code enforcement officers like Tilton may order the disposal of dangerous buildings following notice and a court hearing judging the property to be a nuisance or dangerous. The order may be delayed if the owner or party in interest has demonstrated the ability and willingness to satisfactorily rehabilitate the building.

“It’s not just the city making this up, it’s state law,” Tilton told councilors.

A building may be judged to be a nuisance or dangerous if it “is structurally unsafe, unstable or unsanitary; constitutes a fire hazard; is unsuitable or improper for the use or occupancy it is intended for; and is a hazard to health or safety because of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, obsolescence or abandonment or is otherwise dangerous to life or property,” according to the law.

“A lot of these are subjective: ‘unsightly,’ ‘unsanitary,’” Kaplan said. And, if the owner has No Trespassing posted, then what rights does the city have? she asked. “There’s too many risks to the taxpayer.” 

“The statute covers the city whether it’s in our ordinance or not,” Councilor John Phillips pointed out.

Currently, seven homes in Ellsworth are in various stages of collapse and dereliction, Tilton said. He reviewed the procedural steps involved for the city to take control of an unsafe or nuisance building. 

After first reaching out to the owner, an engineer would have to determine the building was not structurally sound. Then the council would hold a public hearing to determine whether it was sound or unsound. If deemed unsound, the city would pay to have it demolished and bill the owner. If payment is not forthcoming, the city would then go through the court process of placing a lien on the property and then assume ownership if the court ruled in its favor. If the city sells the property, any proceeds over the costs to the city is given to the former owner.

“Taking a person’s property — that’s an extreme step,” Tilton said. 

David Burks, who lives a few doors down from the property cited as an example, encouraged councilors to add the state law to the city ordinance.

“It’s giving it some teeth,” he said.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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