ELLSWORTH — In a split vote Tuesday, the Hancock County Commissioners agreed to spend up to $2,500 for an engineering study on the crumbling Ellsworth Historical Society building located next to the Hancock County Courthouse.
The former jail building, built in 1885, was given to the historical society in 1997 on the condition that the building would be maintained.
Commission Chairman Bill Clark and Commissioner John Wombacher voted in favor of funding the study. Commissioner Antonio Blasi voted against.
Blasi said the building should be removed.
“The building should be removed?” Clark asked.
“Yes,” Blasi replied.
“I think you need to think that whole thing through,” Clark said.
“I have,” Blasi said. “It’s been years, Bill. Why should the county pay this?”
The commissioners as a board have been discussing what to do with the building, which once housed the county jail, for years, as has the historical society itself.
The society, assisted by an architectural historian, approached the board in 2016 about getting a right of way from the county to renovate the building. That project never materialized. The Sutherland Conservation and Consulting conservationist told the society then that the jail “is in an advanced state of deterioration.” The building gutters and down spouts ceased to function as far back as 50 years ago.
Complicating the matter is that the historical society only owns the building itself and the footprint it sits on. The rest of the property, essentially a driveway on either side of the building with space for parking and a small front yard, belongs to the county.
On Monday, Clark met with Bill Fogle, the historical society board president, to look at the structure.
“The historical society has had a little bit of a change of heart and is accepting the reality that some of the repairs they need are going to be beyond their capability to handle financially,” said Fogle, who has been president for a year. “Commissioner Clark suggested coming back to commissioners with a plan for the future. The other point would be how are we going to address immediate needs?”
Bricks have been falling off the building for years creating a hazard for pedestrians and county employees and others who park along the sides of the building.
Dennis Walls, the county’s facilities director, said steps have been taken to safeguard employees and visitors from bricks that may be falling.
“[Engineer] Eero Hedefine is willing to come consult and make a recommendation on repairs or at least arrest what’s happened so far,” said Walls. Plastic was attached to parts of the building a few years ago to catch any bricks that fell. “It’s falling out into the plastic at this time.”
Clark said, “Right now it’s working because there’s a large section chest high where all four layers of brick have fallen into the plastic and all four layers of plastic have continued to hold them.”
“My thought yesterday was shouldn’t we have some quick and dirty engineering to see what the stability of the building is,” Clark said. “Dennis, what’s the term you used yesterday, ‘imminent danger’? I’d like to get someone to provide sense of what the imminent danger is.”
“Has your liability insurance inspector visited the site in this condition?” Blasi asked Fogle. “I wonder how they can cover this under any policy.”
“I know our insurance is current, but I don’t know when the last site visit was,” Fogle replied.
Clark said there are two issues: the immediate concern of safety hazards and then a long-term plan for the building.
“Is there an opportunity for the county to assist them and benefit from a portion of that space?” Clark asked.
The county needs more space, as does the Maine Judicial Branch, which leases part of the courthouse for offices and courtrooms.
“We could build on the back to meet some of our space needs,” Clark said. “They are just overwhelmed with the cost of restoring the entire building. This is a modest way of showing we’re sincere.”