2014-06-20 / Front Page

City declares Mildred Street home to be ‘public nuisance’

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Acting on a petition signed by neighbors of this building at 35 Mildred St., the South Portland City Council took action against owner Christopher Muse on Monday, giving him 15 days to fix a broken sewer line to the property. (Duke Harrington photo Acting on a petition signed by neighbors of this building at 35 Mildred St., the South Portland City Council took action against owner Christopher Muse on Monday, giving him 15 days to fix a broken sewer line to the property. (Duke Harrington photo SOUTH PORTLAND — Following a lengthy hearing Monday night, the South Portland City Council declared a three-unit apartment building in the Pleasantdale neighborhood to be a “public nuisance,” ordering health and code violations to be corrected within 15 days.

If Christopher Muse, owner of the building at 35 Mildred St., does not fix a broken sewer line by July 2, the city has promised to file suit in Cumberland County Unified Court.

However, what that will mean in a practical sense is unclear. The city could get a court order allowing it to make repairs, but with the building now in final foreclosure, City Attorney Sally Daggett said, “I’m not sure the city wants to spend money on fixing the sewer pipe.”

The city also could refuse to allow anyone to live in the building, but that, too, could prove troublesome. To date, Muse has refused to comply with a similar ban already in place.

On May 12, Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette posted the building as “unfit for human habitation,” because raw sewage was backing up into the building’s basement. Doucette said Monday she took action once all the tenants had left. However, Muse has continued to live in the building in violation of the order — what he is using for toilet facilities remains unclear — and has been issued a summons for doing so, with a July 9 arraignment date.

On May 1 and again on June 11, sewer maintenance workers sent a video camera through the sewer line from the manhole on Mildred Street and found Muse’s private line had collapsed due to the incursion of tree roots, completely blocking the pipe and preventing discharge of effluent into the city sewer system. Although only recently confirmed, Doucette said sewer issues have persisted at Muse’s building “for years.”

In a June 12 memo to the city council, Health Officer Stephen Fox alleged that Muse has been pumping water from his basement into the yard and onto Mildred Street.

“Due to the potential for harmful bacteria, these actions constitute a public health threat to the surrounding occupants,” Fox wrote.

However, Muse’s neighbors had already had enough. Taking advantage of a littleused code on the books in South Portland since 1966, 10 residents living within 500 feet of the property submitted a petition asking the council to declare it a “public nuisance.” The ordinance compelled the council to conduct Monday’s hearing to determine if health and safety violations are sufficient to order corrections. A 2012 update to that ordinance allows fines of up to $2,500 for each day a correction order goes unheeded.

During Monday’s hearing, Muse’s neighbors told of repeated issues over the last decade as his building slowly slid into disrepair.

“We really don’t want to be doing this, but we feel we’ve been left with no choice,” said Mildred Street resident Kevin Alvarez. “We’re here because of the sewer issue, but this is not isolated. This has been going on for a long time.”

In a June 4 email, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said his department found 15 fire code violations on the property following a September 2010 inspection, including an absence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. None of the violations had been corrected when the department returned in August 2012 and July 2013.

“The owner has at no point showed any willingness to work with us to correct these violations,” Guimond wrote.

Apart from the condition of his property, Muse also has refused to maintain his yard, never cutting the grass and letting junked items pile up, including an old refrigerator and a number of shopping carts, Alvarez said. Additionally, Muse’s more recent tenants have brought with them an increasing number of drugrelated visits from police.

“I don’t feel that we should feel unsafe,” Stacy Alvarez said. “It now frightens me to let my third-grader play in the yard of what was once a quiet, dead-end street.”

“When I bought my house 35 years ago, it was because of the neighborhood,” said Carole Frenette, also of Mildred Street. “We just want our street back.”

Police Chief Ed Googins said that while his department has kept a special watch on Muse’s building, confirming a recent raid by Maine Drug Enforcement agents, there have never been enough police calls in any one 30-day period to trigger action under the city’s “disorderly house” ordinance.

That seemed of little consolation to neighbors.

“It really amazes me,” Alvarez said. “I’m flabbergasted. Each time I think I’ve seen the worst, I see something that’s worse that what just happened. I can’t imagine what can now be worse than pumping raw sewage water into the street where people are walking.”

“It’s impossible not to be bothered by something like this when you are separated from it by only half a building lot,” said another Mildred Street resident, Dawn Pacillo.

During his defense, Muse said he suffered from an unspecified memory ailment and could not remember complaints made by his neighbors long enough to respond to them directly. Instead, he concentrated his comments on singling out one neighbor in particular, saying the real issue is that he rents to black and Hispanic families.

Calling one of his neighbors, “the most bigoted person I know,” Muse, who himself referred to one group of his tenants at “the Mexican village,” said, “Yes, they had 14 people is a six bedroom apartment, but they fit comfortably. It wasn’t a problem. Yes, they spent all day working on cars in the yard, but they didn’t hurt anybody. They were nice people.”

Muse then invited councilors to visit his property, which he referred to as, “my sole source of income for many years now.” But most seemed to feel they’d heard enough to act.

“Typically, I am of a mind to leave people alone, but when we have 10 neighbors who are willing to put their names to a petition, that indicates to me that there is a problem,” said Councilor Tom Blake.

“To me, the sewer alone is a situation that has to be dealt with immediately, before anything else happens,” agreed Councilor Patti Smith. “It’s hard to believe that this happens in our city.”

“I don’t know how many strikes a person gets before he’s out, but in my opinion, he’s struck out,” said Councilor Michael Pock, referring to Muse.

During council debate, Muse was shushed several times by Mayor Jerry Jalbert, who indicated the time for public comment was over. Muse then passed a handwritten note to councilors, which gave the mayor pause after it worked its way up the line to his place at the head of the dais.

“I’ve sold the property. Sorry I forgot to mention it,” read the note, which gave the name of Muse’s Realtor for confirmation.

However, Councilor Melissa Linscott, a professional Realtor and property investor, seemed unimpressed by the revelation, especially when Muse, who said he would remain a tenant in the building, seemed unable to answer any questions about the sale.

“I think it’s great that there’s been an attempt to sell the property, but it doesn’t even sound like there’s a signed contract,” said Linscott, adding that a so-called “short sale” — when a mortgage holder accepts less than is owed on a property — “can be a very, very lengthy process and is not a Band Aid for this kind of situation.”

Muse bought the building at 35 Mildred St. for $121,900 in October 1992 and became sole owner following a divorce in December 2006. In February of that year, Muse took out a $336,000 mortgage on the home with Downeast Mortgage, which U.S. Bank acquired in August 2008. According to a foreclosure notice filed April 28 at the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, Muse has not made a payment on the property since November 2008 and now owes $350,642.

South Portland has the property assessed at $280,800, including $67,800 for the 0.15-acre lot and $213,00 for the two-story, thee-unit building, built in 1910.

According to the April foreclosure, Muse also owes $30,000 to Evergreen Credit Union for an additional mortgage, as well as $15,960 in legal bills following a 2011 lawsuit filed by a former lessee.

Maine Revenue Service also has a tax lien on the home for $1,707 in back taxes.

Following Linscott’s lead, the city council declined to give Muse time to complete his property sale, voting unanimously to declare his home a public nuisance.

Although Muse was given 15 days to fix the sewer line, the issue is unlikely to end that soon.

“It’s still going to be a long road,” Jalbert told neighbors gathered for the decision. “Our code enforcement officer is going to have a pretty heavy task ahead of her.”

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