Augusta declares the historic Kennebec Arsenal dangerous


The Kennebec Arsenal estate in Augusta photographed on June 24. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — The City Council has declared Kennebec Arsenal’s historic but neglected property dangerous and has given the property’s owner at least 90 days to address concerns.

Concerns include mold growth, peeling lead paint, boarded up doors and windows, collapsed ceilings, electrical connections that could pose a fire hazard, and malfunctioning plumbing.

If the owner doesn’t take action within the required timeframe, which could be extended from 90 to 150 days with city regulatory approval, Augusta could start court proceedings that could include the city executing the work and billing the owner for the work and, if the owner fails to pay the bill, taking ownership.

City councilors voted 7-1 Thursday to declare the property overlooking the Kennebec River, one of the city’s most prominent private properties, dangerous under state statutes. The property is also listed as a National Historic Landmark.

But the council amended the proposed order to remove evidence that the buildings on the site were unstable or in danger of collapsing, saying there was no evidence of this in testimonies taken at two lengthy City Council meetings (4/28), much of it was taken by Tom Niemann, the company’s principal owner, who owns the property, and witnesses summoned by his attorney, who is defending Niemann’s concern for the property.

Councilors also added a claim, unrelated to the original claims, that the property’s electrical connections could pose a fire hazard.

“It’s unsafe because it poses a fire hazard, lack of water and accessibility for firefighters should a fire break out, and a glaring lack of concern for the workers who go in there and do that work,” At -Great Councilor Abigail St. Valle said.

Stephen Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, said there was no question that the Arsenal buildings were under-maintained, derelict or abandoned, terms used in the state’s Dangerous Buildings Act, and that the buildings were in no way intended for use or Occupancy in their arsenal are appropriate current state.

Langsdorf said Niemann’s estimates of the cost of restoring the property were “monstrously low for this type of work,” and little to no work was done there until a few months ago, when the city launched the hazardous building case.

Eric Wycoff, Niemann’s attorney, said the buildings were not dangerous or unsuitable for use or occupancy and did not pose a hazard, but if the city deems them to be so, he asked that the owner be given up to 36 months to address the concerns and make renovations.

This July 2010 aerial photo shows the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

“That would be better for everyone,” Wycoff said. “The buildings are being renovated. The buildings are preserved. You become productive. And any problems that may exist will be resolved.”

At-Large Councilor Raegan LaRochelle, the only vote against designating the buildings as dangerous, said: “To me, these buildings are not dangerous buildings. My main concern was people being injured on the site and the danger the buildings might pose. I am encouraged that Mr. Niemann is making efforts to begin work on some of these properties and hope he continues.”

Bob St. Onge, owner of Jarr Management Inc. and general contractor since 1975, working with Niemann on the Arsenal project, said renovations to most Arsenal buildings were not complicated and required what he described as primarily cosmetic work – Repainting walls, renewing plaster and refinishing floors.

He also said the heating, electrical and plumbing systems in the buildings needed to be checked and restored to working order.

St Onge, who has replaced the roofs of many buildings in the complex in the past, said part of the electrical system is overloaded and needs repairs, but is safe. He also said the property as a whole does not pose a fire hazard as the buildings are mostly granite and secured.

He said Niemann’s latest plan for the property, which includes development for 18 apartments, is three years in the works and was recently submitted to city ordinance officials.

While Niemann and his associates did not apply for permits for the overall project, they did file one permit to repair the Burleigh Building’s porch and two applications to the Office of the Code to do work on the property’s gatehouse and demolish an annex to the commander’s quarters that did not Was part of the original building.

Niemann said two years for the redevelopment of the property, excluding the Old Max building, at an estimated cost of $5.3 million is a reasonable estimate. City officials previously said they expected the property to cost about $30 million to clean up.

Patrick Booth, an architect working on the project, said Niemann and others were seeking a federal historic preservation tax credit to restore the five smallest of the eight buildings on the property.

After Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton’s visits to the property, the city cited numerous issues that make the mostly granite block buildings dangerous, as defined by state law.

Problems include the exterior of all buildings being poorly maintained and in disrepair, including lead paint chipping off all buildings; broken or boarded up windows and doors; missing and damaged mortar on several buildings, posing a risk of loose or falling debris; and more claims for damages.

Overton said the interiors of all the buildings are in extremely poor condition, with peeling paint and loose plaster. Some have collapsed ceilings, significant mold growth, and electrical systems that could pose a fire risk, and all have inoperative or missing plumbing systems.

Constructed between 1828 and 1838 by the federal government and listed as a National Historic Landmark, the collection of granite buildings is considered by some preservationists to be one of the finest and earliest surviving examples of 19th-century ammunition depots.

Niemann purchased the property from the state in 2007 with a $280,000 down payment and obligations that required him to maintain, maintain, and repair the property to preserve its value as a historic site, with plans to convert it into a mixed-use property Site to develop including retail, office space, a boutique hotel and apartments. None of these developments have taken place.

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