City’s abandoned buildings raise concerns

ELLSWORTH — City staff and officials plan to have a formal discussion in October about what to do with a number of abandoned buildings that staff and councilors say are unsightly, potentially unsafe and dragging down property values in the neighborhoods they’re in.

“There are at least five or six buildings in Ellsworth that have all but been abandoned,” said Councilor Marc Blanchette at a meeting on Monday evening. “I think it’s time the city clamped down on them.”

The city does have an ordinance requiring homeowners to secure a building, but that has nothing to do with aesthetics, said Code Enforcement Officer Dwight Tilton. “It’s not pretty, it can be no more than putting plywood up on the windows and doors.”

There is a process in place for taking homeowners who ignore city directives to secure a building to court, said Tilton, but, “It’s the taking of property and it can get very complicated.” Courts, said Tilton, are backlogged, and land use violations are “on the bottom of the docket.”

It also requires the city to shell out money: paying for an engineer to survey the building and declare it unsafe and paying an attorney to go to court and eventually, if a homeowner doesn’t pay and the city takes possession, demolishing the building and cleaning up the land.

In one recent case, said Tilton, the city spent around $10,000 to clean up a building and lot.

“We made money on that one because the lot was worth enough when we sold it,” said Tilton, but the process can still be difficult. “It depends on how much they’re willing to fight for that home if they think they’re going to lose it.”

Bangor has been dealing with a similar problem in recent years, and enacted an ordinance in 2013 that requires certain property owners who leave a building vacant for more than 60 days to register with the city and provide contact information for a local property manager.

In many cases in Bangor, said Tilton, the city simply purchased a lot of the abandoned properties.

But Bangor is in a slightly different situation, said City Manager David Cole, because that city has access to Community Block Grant funds, federal money aimed at providing affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development.

“Bangor is in a slightly different situation because they have access to those kinds of funds,” said Cole. “They have the resources to do it.”

City Planner Theresa Oleksiw pointed out that if Ellsworth does intend to pursue this, councilors should discuss plans for the lots after they come into city hands. Abandoned lots also have issues, she noted, but some municipalities choose to put up affordable housing or pocket parks on properties they’ve foreclosed on.

“It’s a lot more to think about than just taking the building down,” Oleksiw said.

Tilton said he wants to be sure the council is prepared for the cost of following through with the plan if it goes forward.

“I don’t want to start something then say, ‘Oh, it’s too much money, we’re not going to do it,’” said Tilton. “If we’re going to do this, I want to see it through, I want to see it finished.”

Blanchette said he supports following through.

“They’re just laughing at us because they know we’re not going to do anything,” he said of property owners. “I think it’s time for Ellsworth to protect our neighborhoods.”

The council plans to take the issue up formally at a meeting in October.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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