WILTON — Selectmen have taken steps to keep the town from foreclosing on a contaminated demolition site, highlighting a struggle many municipalities face to avoid taking ownership of undesirable property.

Voters will be asked Tuesday night at a special Town Meeting to waive the automatic tax foreclosure on the Depot Street property, where a complex of vacant manufacturing buildings contains asbestos.

The owner has stopped making payments on unpaid property tax bills, and selectmen don’t want the town to acquire the parcel because of the expense to remove the harmful building material, according to Town Manager Rhonda Irish. The vote will take place in the town office at 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, a federal agency is seeking payment of $154,200 in fines for numerous workplace safety violations cited against Downeast Construction Corporation, the company that was handling the demolition at the site.

And the Maine Department of Environmental Protection also plans to fine the company that owns the property, Downeast Construction and Wilton Recycling LLC, because the state agency says they broke asbestos removal laws at the site.

Without voter approval of the tax foreclosure waiver, the town would automatically take ownership of the property unless the unpaid taxes and interest are paid by a March 20 deadline, Irish said.

Wilton Recycling LLC, which is managed from Portland by Adam Mack, owes the town about $4,000 in taxes and interest tied to unpaid property taxes from 2009, Irish said.

The company would still owe the same amount if voters approve the waiver, which basically protects the town from having to attempt to sell the property at auction to recoup the taxes, she said.

Mack, who is a former Republican state representative for Standish, did not return three calls last week seeking comment.

A costly burden

Most municipal governments do not want to be in the property ownership game, even if they don’t have to deal with contamination issues, according to Eric Conrad, spokesman for Maine Municipal Association.

In most cases, officials in towns and cities would rather keep pursuing tax lien action against a property instead of foreclosing on it, Conrad wrote in an email.

Towns and cities attempt to sell a tax foreclosure property at auction to recover unpaid taxes. The municipal association, which advises community leaders statewide, does not keep statistics on how often tax foreclosures are waived, but Conrad says the practice is fairly common.

The city of Waterville has waived numerous property tax foreclosures over the years, seeking to avoid costly burdens tied to taking ownership of everything from dilapidated mobile homes to contaminated industrial sites, City Manager Michael Roy said.

“You really don’t want to assume that responsibility of taking ownership because you have to pay for all the associated costs to fix the property,'” he said.

There are cases, however, where the city foreclosed on a property because it seemed to be the only way to get a contaminated site cleaned even though there is limited money for it, Roy said.

For example, city officials for years refused to foreclose on a property containing several lagoons on West River Road, which had been contaminated by chemicals from the former Wyandotte woolen mill, Roy said.

The woolen mill closed more than 15 years and the ownership was able to successfully dispute that the lagoons did not belong to them after a lengthy legal battle with the Finance Authority of Maine over the issue, Roy said.

When the city foreclosed on the lagoons’ property in 2008, it did so under continued uncertainty about ownership rights, Roy said, adding state law exempts the city from being forced to pay for the contamination cleanup.

Roy said the city reluctantly used the tax foreclosure as a tool to get a job done.

“If it were still out there in ownership limbo, it was much less likely the site would have ever been cleaned up,” he said.

City officials have since been seeking federal environmental grants to pay for the lagoon cleanup. Roy said the contamination does not pose a public health risk and would cost at least $500,000 to clean up.

Roy added that city officials do not intend to tap into the city’s budget to pay for the project.

“Unless we’re able to secure any outside funding, or federal tax dollars, I don’t see this site getting cleaned up for some time,” he said.

This goes way beyond asbestos

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued $154,200 in fines against Downeast Construction in connection with workplace safety violations cited at the demolition site in Wilton, according to William Coffin, the federal labor agency’s area director in Maine.

The alleged violations happened before the agency reported last July that construction workers and emergency responders may have been exposed to dangerously high levels of asbestos at the site.

Eleven firefighters and at least one police officer from Wilton responded to a small fire on the property the day before the agency reported its findings, which led to the construction company voluntarily pulling its workers from the site.

The construction company is accused of 39 serious violations that range from a lack of training for workers to mishandling dangerous substances, Coffin said.

He said the violations go “way beyond asbestos problems.”

Coffin said the construction company did not respond by the 15-day deadline to contest the violations issued on Dec. 15. The national office of the federal agency is overseeing the collection of the unpaid fines, Coffin said.

During past interviews, Mack said Downeast Construction is owned by Ryan Byther, who has not responded to attempts to contact him by phone and email.

A state-licensed cleanup effort last fall removed the asbestos from piles of debris scattered among the partially demolished buildings at the site, which was the former home of Forster Manufacturing Co.

But the cleanup effort, paid for by Wilton Recycling LLC, stalled before it removed most of the asbestos from inside the buildings.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection plans to impose fines for state asbestos removal law violations tied to the demolition project, according to Samantha Depoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the agency.

State environmental officials investigated and found that construction workers had been removing asbestos without the required protective gear and equipment, according to environmental protection department notices of violation sent to the companies.

Investigators said the companies also didn’t have required asbestos inspections done before starting demolition work at the site, as well as failing to meet other state guidelines for removing asbestos from a contaminated site, the notices state.

The state agency has delayed issuing a financial penalty for the violations because its first priority is ensuring the site is cleaned up, she stated in an email.

Depoy-Warren noted the site owner has told the agency that he is attempting to secure money to pay for the cleanup. She added that if the cleanup project does not start up again soon the enforcement process will move forward.

“It is not a matter here of if there will be an enforcement penalty issued, but when,” she wrote.

David Robinson — 861-9287

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