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Council talks rail trail banking, Maskers dust, weed killer, solar heartache and more

Developer confirms Crosby School deal is off

By Ethan Andrews | Oct 21, 2015
File photo Belfast officials said Oct. 20 that mold and other environmental concerns in the former Crosby High School may have derailed a pending sale and a planned conversion of the building to apartments.

Belfast — A plan to convert the former Crosby High School building to apartments has fallen through.

Waterville developer Paul Boghossian confirmed Oct. 27 what city officials had announced a week earlier: The deal to renovate the 38,000-square-foot building is off, and environmental factors are to blame.

"The environmental report was challenging," Boghossian said. "There were significant parts of the renovation that were done in the '90s that I thought we could save, and just about every professional who looked at it said, 'I don't think so.'"

Boghossian said in late August that he had entered a contract to buy the vacant 38,000-square-foot building from National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped. The nonprofit founded by Jesuit Brother Rick Curry bought the former high school from the city for $200,000 in 1995 and spent $3 million on repairs and renovations to the building, which had been vacant for 15 years.

NTWH used the building for its programs until 2007. Since then the old school has stood vacant.

Boghossian, who notably converted Waterville's Hathaway mills into a successful residential and commercial complex, talked in September of renovating the Crosby School to create up to 35 apartments. The overhaul would have cost "north of $3 million," he said at the time. The apartments would have been mostly two-bedroom and "clustered in the $1,100- to $1,200-a-month range."

On Oct. 20, Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall announced that Boghossian had contacted him 10 days earlier to say the deal had fallen through because the broker had not been willing to meet his terms.

Real estate agents at the Portland Offices of CBRE did not respond to a request for comment.

Marshall said environmental hazards, including mold and a buried oil storage tank on the property, may have scuttled the deal.

Bad air quality was cited when the city closed what was then Crosby Junior High School in 1992. In 2010, the city uncovered a mold problem during an environmental assessment of the building in response for calls to create a city-run performing arts center. NTWH took abatement measures, but Marshall said it probably returned in the several years since, when the building sat unheated and unused.

Bogossian did not talk about specifics of the environmental report, but said the added costs of dealing with the problems were too much.

"It's not a complex situation," he said. "The numbers just didn't work."

Councilors and city staff members talked on Oct 10 about what they could do, if anything.

Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge said the city had exhausted federal "brownfields" grants that have been used to clean up a number of government-owned and private properties in the past few years but could potentially apply for more funding on behalf of NTWH.

The city's special interest in the for Crosby School is tied to the history of the building, as many graduates still live in the community.

Perhaps more importantly, it's a uniquely large building downtown. The city recently included it on a short list of properties subject to negotiable contract zoning terms.

Marshall said the question before the city is: "What can we do to make this building as marketable as possible?"

Washington Street plans stall as CMP cleanup bounces to late 2016

The owners of Home Supply hardware store have big plans for redeveloping the property behind the Main Street shop. If only it weren't for the massive toxic bunker in the middle of the property, which extends north along Washington Street.

Central Maine Power has pledged to clean up its former gasification plant, but City Planner Wayne Marshall said the schedule has now been pushed back more than a year and even the latest projections are uncertain.

Marshall said principals of the Palmer Trust, which owns the property, have started a two-to three-week environmental cleanup of their own storage buildings behind the hardware store and had expected that CMP would be right behind them.

The estimated $1.5 million job would entail removing a cement bunker along with contaminated soil going down 16 to 18 feet and stretching under the roadway. Marshall said CMP is paying for the cleanup and was supposed to start this past spring. Recently he heard work would not start until fall 2016.

"They don't have a definitive schedule," Marshall said.

The delays are of some logistical concern to the city, he said, and they also throw a wrench in the Palmers' plans to finance the planned redevelopment.

"No one's going to loan anyone a nickel when you have a major gasification plant on the property," he said, adding that the city doesn't want to see Washington Street ripped up at a time of year that causes havoc.

"It's disquieting," Marshall said. "It's not happy."

Dust-up over Maskers demolition

The former Maskers theater building came down Oct. 20, but it sent up enough dust to start phones ringing at City Hall. Thomas Kittredge, the city's economic development director, said the contractor hadn't been doing enough to keep the dust down.

Kittredge said the dust was largely composed of blown-in insulation, which was not found to contain hazardous materials in an earlier environmental assessment of the building. Likewise, he said, any lead paint present might have flaked off but would not have become airborne as dust.

"I want people to know that it may have caused a nuisance but there was no health risk from the demolition done at the site," he said. "We can do better, and we will do better next time."

Rail Trail campaign hits up small donors

Coastal Mountains Land Trust is within $86,000 of its $400,000 fundraising goal for the new Passy Rail Trail, Executive Director Ian Stewart told the council Tuesday. Around $300,000 was raised in an early, private phase of the fundraising campaign. For the latest efforts, no donation is being deemed too small. The land trust has opened a "Pennies for the Passy" account at Bangor Savings Bank, to which anyone can donate, Stewart said, "including kids with piggy banks that want to give donations."

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Coastal Mountains Land Trust had raised $400,000. That amount is the total the organization hopes to raise.

Vetting the weed killers

Parks and Recreation Department Director Norman Poirier appealed to the council for discretion to use inorganic weed killer on the pavers at Belfast Common. Poirier said organic pesticides hadn't worked and the Parks Commission supported the idea of ramping up the assault.

Most of the council seemed on board. Councilor John Arrison, however, asked how long the weed killer remained toxic when sitting on the impervious flat tops of the pavers. Poirier didn't have an answer, and as the weed killing wouldn't happen until the spring anyway, the matter was tabled to allow for more research.

New Fixed Based Operator at Belfast Airport

Belfast Municipal Airport has been without a fixed base operator since 2014. As Airport Manager Thomas Kittredge explained, FBOs come in all forms, but from the city's perspective, their value lies in having a regular presence at the airport. The longest running FBO in recent memory was Maine Scenic Airways under the ownership of Sandy Reynolds. Reynolds mostly ran a flight school.

The new FBO, DG Aviation, would primarily do maintenance and repair of aircraft. The council approved a deal that would allow the company to perform commercial work in one of the hangars usually limited to recreational use. DG Aviation would also lease a pair of hangars at the end of Airport Road for storage and repairs.

Solar loss, solar gain

Plans to install solar panels at the former city dump on Pitcher Road are going ahead as planned after a hitch that nearly forced the city to pull the plug.

The council approved installing photovoltaic panels at the capped landfill to offset electricity use in government buildings. The deal included an outside investor working with ReVision Energy and the city to foot the initial bill. Assistant City Planner Sadie Lloyd said she and city attorney Bill Kelly spent a week of intense negotiations but could not reach an agreement that satisfied the investor. Ultimately, she said, ReVision agreed to back the project.

The revised arrangement is similar to an earlier collaboration with ReVision Energy that put photovoltaic panels on the roof of the fire station.

The agreement is complex, but in essence ReVision installs its own solar arrays on something owned by the city — a roof, a dump, a fox, a box — then sells the energy back to the city at a rate that increases each year. After six years, the city has the option to buy the solar power equipment and reap the full benefit of the system.

The solar installations at the fire station and former dump combined would produce 20 percent of the electricity used in city government buildings, Lloyd said.

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