BELFAST, Maine — The fate of the old Waldo County jailer’s house on Congress Street was hotly debated by frustrated neighbors Wednesday night at a public meeting called by the Waldo County commissioners, who had proposed to tear the 19th century structure down.
“I love that building, and I don’t want to see it razed,” Lily Piel, who lives on Congress Street, said in the meeting held at the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency building. “I want to know how this decision is going to be made and when it is going to be made. I don’t even understand how these decisions get made, but it seems like it’s out of our hands.”
The wooden jailer’s house was built in 1887, and until the late 1970s, the county sheriff lived there as part of his compensation. In 1980, it was converted into offices for the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, but it has been left largely vacant since 2012. That year, the county built a modern, $2 million structure behind the jailer’s house complex to house the sheriff’s offices and the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency facility.
The former jailer’s house features the original small rooms and distinctive moldings of its era but also the lead paint and asbestos.
Waldo County Commissioner Bill Shorey told the 25 or so people present at the public hearing that it would cost more than $1 million to renovate it, and that is money the county is unwilling to spend. Further complicating efforts to repurpose the house is the fact that it is physically connected to the largely unused former jail, built in 1851, as well as the Maine Coastal Reentry Center and 72-hour hold facility.
“Several redevelopment options have previously been considered,” read a certified letter sent to neighbors of the property in late May by Congress Street Hill Property LLC, the county-controlled redevelopment corporation. “The [corporation] is currently proposing to renovate and restore the former jail building for archival and document storage and to raze the former jailer’s house and barn.”
The corporation was awarded a $200,000 cleanup grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program, money which will be used to remediate hazardous materials at the site. Petroleum and lead found in the soil adjacent to the building already has been removed. In addition to the cleanup, the old building needs new plumbing and wiring to bring it up to code.
Shorey told meeting attendees that no decisions had been made yet, but suggested the county might turn the house lot into a small park if it is torn down. He asked the people at the meeting for other ideas of what to do with the building and was initially met by a barrage of mistrust and some anger from Congress Street neighbors who years ago had vehemently opposed construction of the new facility.
Paula Johnson, who lives close to the jailer’s house, said the county deceived taxpayers with its past actions and she did not want to see this building demolished.
“It’s historical,” she said. “When I look out my door it looks like a neighborhood.”
The old building blocks the view of the re-entry center and the new sheriff’s office complex, she and several other neighbors said.
Neighbors asked county officials why they had not done routine maintenance on the old building, whether they had sought out grant funding to save the building, and why they had not listed it for sale to see if there might be any potential buyers.
“I think if someone wanted to make us a reasonable offer, we’d sell it,” Shorey said. “But no developer wants to tackle a building in the middle of a Brownfields cleanup.”
Ultimately, the commissioners said they wanted to work with the Congress Street neighbors to come up with viable solutions and asked neighbors to form a committee to help do so.
“We sincerely hope they make good on their promise to work with us this time around,” neighbor Thierry Bonneville said after the meeting.