CARIBOU, Maine — With likely hundreds of dangerous and blighted buildings that need to be torn down and cleaned up in Caribou, city officials are trying to identify and deal with the worst of them as a first step.
Caribou tried in 2019 to informally survey how many blighted properties exist within city limits. Although the survey did not produce an exact number because city officials said there are always some that are inconspicuous and not in the public eye, it found that there are likely hundreds of those properties scattered throughout the city. Many of those blighted properties have the potential to fall into further disrepair and be deemed dangerous to the public.
Caribou is the latest Maine city to tackle the widespread problem of derelict properties in a state littered with crumbling older houses and business buildings.
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To help combat this problem, the state Senate last week passed LD 1694: An Act to Create the Maine Redevelopment Land Bank Authority, which would give town and city governments additional powers to take over abandoned and vacant properties so they can ensure they’re redeveloped.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, allows the state to form a statewide redevelopment authority and coordinate with municipalities that want to establish local land banks that could take over blighted properties and perhaps use the land to develop affordable housing.
Properties that are the most dangerous prevent the city from developing land for housing and fostering neighborhood prosperity, Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said.
“It’s safe to say that there are blighted buildings in every neighborhood,” Murchison said. “Just this week I’ve sent four notices of violation [to building owners].”
Caribou is aggressively addressing properties that were once considered neighborhood highlights but have fallen into disrepair.
City councilors recently declared all nine homes at the former West Gate Villa Mobile Home Park to be dangerous properties, which gives Caribou legal authority to remove or demolish them and clean up the land, even though the city does not own either.
West Gate Villa served as housing for military service members and their families when Loring Air Force Base operated in Limestone. After the base closed in the early 1990s, those service members left, abandoning the housing.
Since then, various owners of the mobile home park have not maintained electric lines or water and sewer systems. Vandals have stripped some homes of copper pipes, windows and doors, Murchison said.
The city has chosen not to place West Gate Villa on its tax-acquired property list because the thefts and lack of maintenance have left the business without financial value. In addition, West Gate Villa has not been licensed to operate a mobile home park since 2014.
“It has been a nuisance site for the past 20 years or more,” Murchison said. “The city is using state statute [for dangerous buildings] to deal with the property and maybe recoup some of the expenses of clean-up.”
Like many blighted properties within the city, West Gate Villa is owned by an out-of-state developer. This one is located in Miami. Attempts to reach the current and former owners of West Gate Villa have been unsuccessful over the years, Murchison said.
The information prompted councilors to issue the dangerous building declaration, after a public hearing, and point out the need to do more to address blighted properties.
“If we have the [West Gate mobile homes] torn down or carted away, is it possible to put the cost of all of that onto the owners’ tax bills?” asked Councilor Joan Theriault.
That question might have an unfortunate answer for the city, Murchison said, if the West Gate Villa story ends like that of the former Birds Eye processing plant site. Caribou acquired that site on Route 1 and demolished all buildings after the former owner refused to pay back taxes. That meant the city took on expenses related to the clean-up.
A less drastic but still important clean-up will soon happen at the city-owned site of the former Caribou Trailer Park, located on 184 Main St.
Built in the early 1970s, the mobile homes on that land were once considered ideal affordable housing options, but aging structures and lack of sufficient upkeep prompted the city to close the park and help trailer owners relocate or find other housing options.
While new affordable housing developments at the West Gate and Caribou Trailer Park sites remain uncertain, the recent state legislation on land banks could help city officials dispose of dangerous and blighted tax-acquired properties more efficiently.
“Basically, we can renovate a set of tax-acquired properties and put them back on the tax roll,” Murchison said.
Murchison was part of the stakeholder group of municipal officials who advocated for the passage of LD 1694. Although Caribou’s conversations about developing a land bank authority are still early, he sees the concept as a potential resource for speeding up future development.
“Normally it takes years to acquire and redevelop blighted properties, but a land bank could give us resources we haven’t had before,” Murchison said. “[That’s why] we’ll be reaching out to our state and federal delegation to explore our options.”
BDN reporter Lia Russell contributed to this report.