CLAREMONT — The Claremont City Council backed a funding proposal to potentially clear the path to demolish the city’s hazardous building on 139 Main St. Wednesday — but not with unanimous support from councilors.
The plan to tear down the crumbling structure has been complicated by the demolition’s potential impact on the neighboring property at 147 Main St. — a seven-unit apartment building for people with low to moderate incomes — which shares an abutting wall owned by New England Family Housing with 139 Main St.
In late 2018, a building inspection found that that the party wall — which the two buildings shared — would have to be removed in the demolition process, as the party wall was buckling substantially and the wall joints were built into the party wall.
In July 2019, the city reached an agreement with 147 Main St. owner Kevin Lacasse of New England Family Housing, in which he will take responsibility to shore up his building and give the city permission to tear down the party wall. In exchange, the city will contribute up to $6,000 to the cost of a new foundation wall.
But, Lacasse told the council that bids for his portion of the project were beyond what he could afford or justify.
“The renovations were coming in at north of $300,000 to fix it,” Lacasse told the council. “That was more money than the value of the building was worth alone, let alone the value of the mortgage. So there was no way to finance it.”
Council authorizes grant application request
On Wednesday, the city council voted 5-4 to authorize the city to apply for an emergency Community Development Block Grant for up to $500,000 to cover the cost to shore up 147 Main St. and construct a new party wall after the demolition.
An emergency application means the request would be fast-tracked for consideration by the authorizing state board, whose next meeting is scheduled in early February, according to Claremont Planning and Development Director Nancy Merrill. With board approval, the application could reach the governor’s Executive Council for assent in March.
If approved, the city would receive $25,000 from the grant funds to cover administrative costs to manage the application.
Merrill said that the city will contract those services to a third party.
The grant might also relieve the city’s obligation to contribute to replace the party wall. Merrill said that the city and Lacasse would have to negotiate an amendment to the existing contract.
The five city council members who voted in favor of authorizing the grant application were Mayor Charlene Lovett, Assistant Mayor Allen Damren, councilors Abigail Kier, Nicholas Koloski and Deborah Matteau.
Councilors James Contois, Andrew O’Hearne, Jon Stone and Erica Sweetser voted against the request.
“Being new, I didn’t think I had enough information [to support the request,” Sweetser told the Eagle Times in an interview Saturday.
Sweetser said she agrees that 139 Main St. is a serious hazard and must come down. However, she does not want to approve the use of a grant without knowing whether the seeker has other resources to afford the cost.
Contois told The Eagle Times that he felt the taxpayers shouldn’t fund repairs for private property owners.
“The city has no interest in either 139 or 147 Main St. and should not be a party to the use of taxpayer money for the rehabilitation,” Contois said in a written response on Sunday.
O’Hearne and Stone did not reply to requests for comment by time of publication.
Councilor Matteau said that she was worried more about the potential liability costs to Claremont should the city fail to act.
“The situation as it stands now is a huge safety [issue] to the city,” Matteau told the Eagle Times. “In the long run, not going after federal money could result in taxpayers paying more later.”
Some residents have criticized the city’s plan to demolish 139 Main St. due to the fact that the building is privately owned. Opponents have told the council that the burden to fund the building’s removal should fall on its owners, not the taxpayers.
Initially, the city council approved an order that required the owner, Frank Sargent of Twin State Property, to demolish the derelict property at his own expense. Sargent said that he did not have the means to take down the building.
Claremont City Manager Ed Morris told the councilors before their vote on Wednesday that the city would still be held liable in case of an accident, regardless of who owns the building.
“I know there’s a controversy about whether we should be spending money on this or not,” Morris said. “But the city does have liability, knowing that this is a dangerous building that could come down and hurt somebody.
In 2018, the city placed barricades around 139 Main St. to close off sidewalk access, following reports in the summer that bricks were coming apart from the structure.
In December 2018, after engineers determined the state of the party wall with 147 Main St., city health officials ordered the evacuation of tenants from Lacasse’s building.
[My building] sitting vacant isn’t doing anyone any favors, including myself,” Lacasse told the council on Wednesday. “Expenses continue to tick on that building every second I don’t have tenants in there, so obviously I want to have it done as soon as possible.”