AUGUSTA — The owner of the historic but long-neglected Kennebec Armory, facing a vote by city councilors to potentially declare the property unsafe and force its repair and preservation, defended his custody and oversight of the property on Thursday.
After the discussion lasted more than three hours on Thursday evening, councilors decided to postpone action and once again delay a decision. They plan to continue the hearing at their next meeting on August 4 at 5:30 p.m.
Councilors first heard from city officials about the state of waterfront property, then listened to Kennebec Arsenal owner and future developer Tom Niemann and his attorney, Eric Wycoff, who mounted a long and aggressive defense against the claims of city officials. the property is unmaintained and rotting with no development taking place. As the clock ticked to 10 p.m. with Niemann still in the gallery contesting the city’s claims and with other cases still on their agenda, councilors broke off the public hearing on the proposal to declare the site unsafe. .
“We just want to make a good decision and as the hour is late we may not make a good decision, and we still have other business to attend to tonight,” Mayor Mark O’Brien said Thursday after nearly three hours. and 45 minutes back and forth between city officials and Niemann and Wycoff.
Niemann said he did not receive sufficient notice from the city to be able to address issues reported by the city’s code enforcement office. He also said he had windows and doors on buildings closed — which the city cited as a concern — at the request of state officials to help protect them. Niemann also said he had done extensive work there, including putting a new roof on all the buildings. He said he is still working on the redevelopment of the property which he says could take place on five of the site’s six landmark structures over the next 24 months.
He said progress had been hampered by his inability to secure funding for the project, the economic downturn and a since-dismissed lawsuit by the state filed against him. He said his company currently has enough funds to undertake the redevelopment of five of the six historic housing structures and plans to submit permit applications to the city for the work as early as August 31.
“Our plan, in 24 months or less, is to do five of the six buildings,” Niemann said. “We have the financial resources to move forward with the five buildings. The only thing that could derail this project is if we can’t work out our differences with the city of Augusta.
After code enforcement officer Rob Overton’s visits to the property, the city cited numerous issues making the mostly granite block buildings at Kennebec Armory worthy of being considered unsafe. These issues include: the exteriors of all poorly maintained and dilapidated buildings, including peeling lead-based paint on all buildings; broken or barricaded windows and doors; missing and deteriorated mortar on several buildings creating a risk of loose or falling debris; and more claims of dilapidation.
Overton said the interiors of all buildings were in very poor condition, with peeling paint and loose plaster. Some have collapsed ceilings and heavy mold infestation, as well as electrical systems that could pose a fire hazard, and all buildings have inoperable or missing plumbing systems.
He said work had taken place on some buildings on the site, but overall the property remained largely neglected. He said none of the buildings could be occupied, including the “Old Max” building, which was occupied when Niemann purchased the property.
Niemann disputed many of the city’s claims to ownership.
“Generally, all aspects of these buildings, other than the roofs, are in a state of decay, disrepair or just neglect,” Overton said. “The work that has been done has not resolved the issues with any of the buildings,” the city’s second notice of violation noted.
Asked by Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins about the cost of upgrading the buildings, Overton estimated that it could cost around $30 million to bring the buildings up to occupancy level.
Niemann, meanwhile, said it would cost just $1.76 million to redevelop five of Arsenal’s six historic buildings, and between $2 and $3.5 million to redevelop the large Burleigh building in 11 luxury apartments.
The National Historic Site’s collection of granite buildings, built by the federal government between 1828 and 1838, was considered by some curators to be one of the best and oldest examples of 19th-century munitions depots in the country.
An unsafe building may be declared, under state law, when authorities determine that buildings are structurally unsafe and unstable; unsuitable for the use or occupation for which they are intended; and constitute a health or safety hazard due to improper maintenance, age, obsolescence or abandonment.
When a municipality declares a building unsafe, it can order the owner to remedy the problems identified within a certain period of time. If no action is taken, the city can step in, have contractors fix the problem, or even have the building demolished. The owner is then billed for the costs. And if no payment is received, the city can place a lien on the property and could, ultimately if the lien is not paid, become the owner.
Niemann was prosecuted for his management of the Arsenal by the state in 2013, in a lawsuit claiming he failed to properly preserve or maintain the buildings. The case was later dismissed after the two parties reached an agreement in which he pledged to better maintain the site. And in 2017, the Greater Augusta Utility District initiated foreclosure proceedings because Niemann failed to pay $60,000 in stormwater charges, but that proceeding was halted when that bill was paid.
Niemann purchased the property from the state, with a down payment of $280,000, with covenants requiring him to preserve, maintain, and repair the property to preserve its value as a historic site, in 2007.
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