AUGUSTA — Public access to the grounds of the historic Kennebec Arsenal property that overlooks the Kennebec River is blocked because of concerns about illegal activity in and around the parking lot.

However, the Greenway Trail, a hiking and bicycling trail that runs between the east side of the river and the substantial granite buildings on the property, remains open to the public and is accessible from other points, including the city’s waterfront park. It will remain so under the terms of an easement the city has ensuring public access to the scenic trail that crosses the property.

“The trail is open. There is no intention by us to do anything but continue that,” said Tom Niemann, whose North Carolina-based firm bought the property from the state in 2007 with thus far unfulfilled promises to redevelop the property.

The entrances to the Arsenal’s parking lot have been blocked off by rows of yellow-painted concrete blocks and “no parking” and “keep out” signs, a move Niemann said was prompted by what he described as criminal activity in and near the parking lot. He declined to specify what the activity was, other than that it was “distasteful.”

Deputy Chief Jared Mills, of the Augusta police, said police have responded to reports of indecent conduct including, occasionally, people being propositioned for sexual acts, as well as drug dealing on the property. He said police have increased their patrols there over the last year. He said he anticipates restricting access to the parking lot could help decrease illegal activity on the site.

Niemann said he anticipates that blocking public access to the site will be temporary until the company devises a plan to allow at least some limited public access.

“We don’t want the general public to suffer because of the actions of a few in the parking lot,” Niemann said, “but we’ve got to make sure it’s a safe, secure environment for the public to enjoy. It was a tough choice for us to limit it.”

The public will be allowed to use the property on the Fourth of July as a viewing spot for fireworks the city shoots off just upriver. Niemann said the company knows people would be disappointed if they couldn’t go there on the holiday, so it decided to allow access.

He said all the company asks is that people be careful as they use the property at their own risk, and that they pick up any trash when they leave.

Area residents and workers who use the property to get to the tranquil and scenic Greenway Trail are disappointed in the blocked access. They said they’ll probably still use the trail but reach it from other spots.

Daniel McNulty, of Farmingdale, works at the nearby Ballard Center and takes walks from work across the Arsenal property to the trail. Also, he and his wife took their dogs for walks on the trail, parking in the now-blocked Arsenal lot.

Thursday he noticed the cement blocks and signs saying it was private property and not to be trespassed upon.

“It was very, very disappointing to see that sign,” McNulty said. “It is kind of shocking, because a lot of people go down there fishing, too. It’s an amazing spot, so tranquil. I understand (why they chose to close access to it), but it is sad a few bad apples would ruin this.”

Ryan Gordon, who said he has been riding his bicycle across the Arsenal property to get to the Greenway Trail every weekday as he commutes to and from work nearby on Hospital Street, said he understands why the owner would block access to the parking lots if activity there is hurting his interest in the property, but that foot and bicycle traffic should not be prevented on the property.

“I have not seen any criminal activity or evidence, but I’m only there during normal commuting hours,” Gordon said. “If there truly is criminal activity occurring, then I suppose that blocking vehicles is a reasonable response, but I still think it would be nice if they let people roam around on foot or bike during daylight hours.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said Niemann contacted him in recent weeks and indicated he was thinking about blocking off access to the Arsenal’s parking lot. Bridgeo said an easement ensures that by law, the public still will be able to use the Greenway Trail across the Arsenal property.

Bridgeo said Capitol Police previously patrolled the property but do not do so any longer. He said Augusta police patrol it now, as they would any other property in the city.

The property is a designated National Historic Landmark. In 2013, it was listed by Maine Preservation as among the state’s most endangered historic properties. It has been described by some preservationists as one of the best and earliest surviving examples of 19th-century munitions depots in the country. It was built from 1828 to 1838.

Niemann and Neil Piper, who works as security officer for the property, said they anticipate reopening the property to public access. They’d like to formulate a plan to allow access during daylight hours, probably by the end of summer.

“We tried keeping it open as long as we could,” Piper said. “Ninety-eight percent of the people who go down there go there to use it in good faith. They have a picnic with family, do some fishing, sit in a lawn chair under the oak tree. That’s what we like to have. The other 2 percent, unfortunately, those people ruined it for the rest of the people.”

Piper said the property previously had problems with people breaking into the historic buildings, some to vandalize it, others to look around.

“A lot of them are ‘ghost hunters,’ or breaking in to see what the building looks like,” he said.

He said security has been stepped up there, with him providing on-site security, and video cameras installed so the property can be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said there have been no break-ins this year, after there were multiple break-ins the previous year. Vandals previously have caused more than $80,000 in damage to the buildings, officials said.

Niemann said if a fire occurs at one of the buildings on the site, a firetruck should be able to drive right over the concrete blocks that are placed across the driveway.

City and state officials have complained, previously, that Niemann hasn’t developed the property and has allowed it to deteriorate.

A lawsuit filed by the state in 2013 accused Niemann of failing to make promised improvements and neglecting the property, resulting in more than $1 million of damage to the seven-building, formerly state-owned complex. Niemann later denied many of the state’s claims.

A court official said Thursday the lawsuit was still pending and the last action on it was a status report May 2.

Niemann said the lawsuit is on hold until July 22, and he wasn’t sure if the state will decide in July to continue the lawsuit or drop the complaint.

He said his company has done everything he agreed to do in the stay agreement that put the lawsuit on hold.

He said new roofs have been put on most of the buildings, with repairs being made to the roof of the largest, the Burleigh building.

Other work on the property that has taken place in the last few years includes landscaping, foundation and drainage work around many of the buildings, masonry work, cleanup, remediation of lead-based paint, painting of porches, and the removal of the large but dilapidated porch which was on the Burleigh building.

“We’ve invested quite a bit of money in the last two years,” Niemann said. “The site is moving closer to being development-ready, and ready for me to show to potential tenants and lenders. We’re committed to continuing the maintenance of the building and honoring the historic preservation deed restrictions.”

No tenants have moved into the property, nor has development taken place.

However, Niemann said he is negotiating with a prospective tenant and he expects to be able to announce a new tenant in the fall.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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