2017-09-29 / Community

SoPo marina on the radar

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland City Councilor Brad Fox announced he would not seek a second three-year term in office, the west end representative knew there would nevertheless be a long list of things to do before vacating his seat. Now, he has vowed to check off at least one of those political bucket list items, which involves a building on the opposite side of the city from the district he represents.

One of the main buildings of Aspasia Marina, located at 257 Front St. in the city’s historic Ferry Village neighborhood, has been slowly falling in on itself for a number of years. Two years ago, a similarly dilapidated storage building located on one of the marina’s wharfs, which dated to the marina’s 19th century days as a shipbuilding site, finally came down. Another building still stands, more or less, and given that it’s situated less than 2 feet off the road, it poses a risk to anyone who happens to be passing by when it finally falls in.

“This is actually something that I was working on two years ago, and with one thing and another – the change-over in city managers and code enforcement officers, I, frankly, forgot about it,” Fox said in a recent interview. “But then it popped into my head the other day and I wondered, ‘Whatever happened to that?’ and I can’t believe it’s still there.”

“As a former school administrator, safety is the number one thing. You can never stop seeing things that might be a danger to kids,” Fox said. “This building, it’s a total danger. There is a fence, but, still, kids could get in there, homeless people could get in there, and God forbid if it ever catches on fire.

Calls to marina owners went unreturned.

“There’s so many terribly good reasons that building should be taken down immediately,” Fox added. “The city, not just me, but the entire city has just not dealt with it. Everybody knows it’s there. It’s impossible to miss.”

One person also concerned about the property is Ferry Village resident Tom Blake, a former city councilor and three- time mayor.

“I am disappointed that the property owner does not take greater pride,” he said. “It is a dump. The place is unsafe. I hear that all the time from people. I just can’t believe that they continue to allow that with fire department inspections. I don’t know how it’s allowed to be as it is. When I was in the fire department for 27 years, we didn’t exempt anything, and we followed up on everything to at least see some progress.”

“I am disappointed in the city that it has been this long and we have not been able to address the issue,” Blake added. “The owners have said they cannot afford to fix that up, but part of the property is a successful marina, and our marinas do quite well in South Portland. They make money.”

The site is historic. Part of it is said to be the second-oldest shipyard in America, dating to its founding as Portland Ship Yard Co. and there are still railroad tracks that run along what were once construction bays. But the more recent problem is not new. In March 2014, the Ferry Village Neighborhood Association considered signing a nuisance petition to force a city council hearing on the building.

“It’s a dump,” High Street resident Joseph Capelluti said at the time. “It has rats all around it. I’m sure if my house looked like that I’d have to do something. Why is the city doing nothing about that site that looks like its buildings are about to fall in?”

However, the association was reportedly discouraged from moving forward by then city manager Jim Gailey (now manager of Cumberland County) and assistant manager Jon Jennings (now city manager in Portland). Although the nuisance petition process had been used in 2012 to force a Wythburn Road resident to clean debris from his yard, city administration preferred to work with the Californiabased marina owners. At the time, then mayor Jerry Jalbert predicted a “boutique restaurant” could be in the offing by as early as that summer. Ultimately, the city’s lone success was to shepherd installation of bathroom facilities, an upgrade from the site’s old outhouse.

As it turns out, the nuisance option may not have worked in this case. The ordinance was created with residential properties in mind, and at Aspasia, as is the case of many businesses, there may not be 10 abutting residents within the requisite 500 feet from a problem area to sign a petition.

“It’s another example of how this city continues to treat businesses differently from residents,” Blake said.

Last week, Fox sat down with City Manager Scott Morelli to put the Aspasia issue back on the table. Morelli said Tuesday the marina owners were in town this past June and stopped into to talk to code enforcement and planning officials.

“I understand that went well and they do want to improve the site,” Morelli said, noting that one potential stumbling block could be code rules that would prevent the owners from rebuilding on the same footprint if a building is taken down.

It might be that the structure is grandfathered from current zoning only if the building collapses on its own. Still, Morelli said, the city does have an option available under state law to declare a “dangerous building” and take the offending unit down on its own, sending the owner a bill for the work.

“I don’t know if it will come to that, but having seen the building, I do definitely agree that this is something that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later,” Morelli said.

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