The Kennebec Arsenal property in Augusta is seen June 24. City councilors gave the historic property’s owner about a month to present a plan to address a host of concerns with the site before they consider declaring it a dangerous property. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — The owner of the historic but long-neglected Kennebec Arsenal, facing a vote by city councilors to potentially declare the property dangerous and force its repair and preservation, defended his caretaking and oversight of the property Thursday.

After the discussion stretched on for more than three hours Thursday night, councilors decided to postpone action and once again delay a decision. They plan to continue the hearing at their next meeting Aug. 4 at 5:30 p.m.

Councilors first heard from city officials about the condition of the riverfront property, then listened as Kennebec Arsenal owner and would-be developer Tom Niemann and his lawyer, Eric Wycoff, who mounted an aggressive, lengthy defense to the claims by city officials the property is not being maintained and is rotting away while no development of it takes place. As the hour passed 10 p.m. with Niemann still at the podium disputing the city’s claims and with other business still on their agenda, councilors paused the public hearing on the proposal to declare the site to be dangerous.

“We just want to make a good decision and as the hour runs late we run the risk of not making a good decision, and we still have other business we need to conduct tonight,” Mayor Mark O’Brien said Thursday after nearly three hours and 45 minutes of back and forth between city officials and Niemann and Wycoff.

Niemann said he hadn’t gotten adequate notice from the city to be able to address the problems pointed out by the city’s code enforcement office. He also said he had the buildings’ windows and doors boarded up — which the city cited as a concern — at the request of state officials to help protect them. Niemann also said he had extensive work done there, including putting new roofing on all buildings. He said he is still working to redevelop the property which he said could take place on five of the site’s six landmark structures within the next 24 months.

He said progress has been stymied by his inability to get funding for the project, the economic recession and a since-dismissed state lawsuit filed against him. He said his company currently has enough funding to take on redevelopment of five of the six historic structures for housing and expects to submit permit applications to the city for that work as soon as Aug. 31.

Advertisement

“Our plan, in 24 months or less, is to do five of the six buildings,” Niemann said. “We have the financial resources to move ahead with the five buildings. The only thing that could derail this project is if we can’t work through our differences with the city of Augusta.”

After Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton’s visits to the property, the city cited numerous problems making the mostly granite-block buildings of the Kennebec Arsenal worthy of being deemed dangerous. Those problems include: exteriors of all buildings being inadequately maintained and dilapidated, including chipping lead-based paint on all buildings; broken or boarded up windows and doors; missing and deteriorated mortar on several buildings creating a risk of loose or falling debris; and more claims of disrepair.

The Kennebec Arsenal property in Augusta is seen June 24, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

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

He said some work has taken place on some buildings at the site, but overall the property remains largely neglected. He said none of the buildings are suitable for occupancy, including the “Old Max” building, which was occupied when Niemann purchased the property.

Niemann disputed many of the city’s claims about the property.

“Generally every aspect of these buildings, other than the roofs, is in some state of deterioration, dilapidation or just neglect,” Overton said. “The work that has been done has not remedied the issues with any of the buildings,” noted on the city’s second notice of violation.

Advertisement

Asked by Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins how much it could cost to bring the buildings up to speed, Overton estimated it could cost about $30 million to bring the buildings up to an occupiable standard.

Niemann, meanwhile, said his estimate is it would cost just $1.76 million to redevelop five of the Arsenal’s six historic building, and somewhere between $2 million and $3.5 million to redevelop the large Burleigh building into 11 luxury apartments.

The Kennebec Arsenal property in Augusta is seen June 24, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The National Historic Landmark collection of granite buildings, built by the federal government between 1828 and 1838, was considered by some preservationists to be among the best and earliest surviving examples of 19th century munitions depots in the country.

A dangerous building may be declared, under state statute, when officials determine buildings are structurally unsafe and unstable; unsuitable for the use or occupancy to which they are put; and constitute a health or safety hazard due to inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, obsolescence or abandonment.

When a municipality declares a building to be dangerous it can order the owner to address the identified problems within a certain amount of time. If no action is taken the city can step in, have contractors fix the issue, or even have the building torn down. 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 isn’t paid off, take ownership.

Niemann was sued for his handling of the Arsenal by the state in 2013, in a lawsuit that claimed he hadn’t adequately preserved or maintained the buildings. The case was later dropped after both sides reached an agreement in which he committed to better maintaining the site. And in 2017 the Greater Augusta Utility District initiated foreclosure proceedings because Niemann hadn’t paid $60,000 in storm water fees, but those proceedings were halted when that bill was paid.

Niemann bought 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 an historic place, in 2007.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: