WATERVILLE — A former College Avenue business owner is threatening to sue the city if it does not do something about a building she claims is ridden with mold and bacteria and should be condemned because of dangerous air quality.
Erika Russell, of Sidney, addressed the City Council on Tuesday night, charging that the building she leased, the former John Martin’s Manor at 54 College Ave., for her business, The Country Manor, caused her and her family to become ill. She said the city issued a permit of occupancy for the building when she moved in a year ago, and it is the city’s job to “make right what they’re refusing to make right.”
“Your city is not taking seriously a very hazardous and unhealthy building,” Russell said.
Contacted Wednesday, the building owner, Patrick Casey, said Russell was evicted in March because she had not paid her rent and utilities in many months and owes him “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
“It’s more than some people make a year,” Casey said.
He said that he got a court judgment March 24 to evict Russell and told her she had to vacate the building.
“Once she got evicted, she started all this stuff with the town and the building and all that,” he said. “She did not pay her rent, and she did not pay her bills. She blamed everyone else for the failure of her business, I guess.”
The Country Manor included a consignment shop and banquet facility on the first floor, a bridal business and children’s boutique on the second floor and a steakhouse in the basement.
Casey said he feels badly for the hundreds of people whose consignment items are still in the building, and he is hoping to work it out so they get their items back. He said he plans to put an advertisement in the paper saying when they can go in to retrieve items.
City Manager Michael Roy said Wednesday that when he met with Russell recently, it was unclear to him exactly what she wanted or expected the city to do about the building, and he asked her to put her complaint in writing. He said he sent her a letter Wednesday saying the city needs further proof and evidence of why she believes the building is unsafe.
Tuesday night, Russell handed to councilors four pages of a document she said was from a company that tested the inside of the building and deemed it unsafe. Roy said he requested in his letter to Russell that she forward the full report to the city.
“I think some of the landlord-tenant problems that she’s had are playing a role in the problems that she is reporting today,” he said.
When a business moves into a building, the owner must get approval from the state fire marshal’s office, the local fire department and others. Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins on Wednesday referred questions about Russell’s complaints to Roy, who confirmed he is the one to comment on the case.
Casey said both he and his brother have worked in the building for years, neither is sick and there’s nothing wrong with the building.
But Russell said she and her family, including her children, are ill, and it is because of the air quality in the building. She said she never should have been given a certificate of occupancy.
“Have you ever met Erin Brockovich?” she asked councilors Tuesday, referring to a legal clerk who won a lawsuit in a case involving contaminated water in 1993 in California. “Well, I’m Erika Russell and I’m pissed.”
She said she and her family invested their entire lives in the business. She said she wanted something done about the situation immediately.
“Either you do your job and you do something about this, or I’m going to sue the city of Waterville,” she said.
In other matters Tuesday, former City Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, a Democrat who represented Ward 7, announced she planned to run for mayor in November. Rancourt-Thomas, who ran against Mayor Nick Isgro three years ago in a three-way race, said city officials must listen to those who do not want a tax hike this year.
Councilors voted 5-0 to approve the closing of Common Street on Thursdays for the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market. Councilor Nick Champagne, R-Ward 5, abstained from voting.
The council approved leases with Airlink Academy and Air New England for space at the airport.
They also voted to refer a request to sell the vacant former Elden Inn lot off Main Street to Sidney Geller to the Parking Study Committee for its recommendation.
A vote on a request to lease spaces in the city-owned lot on Front Street to Colby College for use by a boutique hotel was postponed.
William Violette was appointed to the Waterville Sewerage District, and Isgro proclaimed next Wednesday to be Waterville Public Library Love Day.
Amy Calder — 861-9247