YORK, Maine — The caretaker of a fire-damaged historic beach house has been ordered by a judge to board up its windows and cut its electricity after months of her resisting the town’s health and safety efforts.
Caretaker Eileen Ceccanti has been preventing town staff from entering 99 Freeman St. ever since a fire badly damaged the 19th-century home May 13, frustrating town officials who want to ensure the home is safe. Ceccanti has continued to have work done on the property despite lacking a building permit that requires the property owner, whose name has eluded town officials.
The Selectboard, which found the home dangerous under Maine law in July, voted in October to seek injunctive relief from a judge to secure the property and prevent unpermitted construction. That has resulted in a consent order in York County Superior Court, the terms of which were agreed upon by attorneys for the town and Ceccanti.
The order requires Ceccanti to secure the property and then cease all other construction. It also allows the town to monitor her progress.
Ceccanti’s attorneys David Silk and Robert Papazian could not be reached for comment. Selectboard Chair Todd Frederick said during the Nov. 28 board meeting the order was a good outcome for the town. The listed owner of the building is a limited partnership that town counsel said dissolved in 2006, leaving no trace of a name and no proof that Ceccanti herself is the owner.
“I’m glad what happened,” Frederick said. “I think we met the goal that the board talked about at our meeting and gave broad but defined parameters the attorney could work within.”
The order follows a contentious six months in which Ceccanti had unpermitted construction work done while demanding town staff stay away from the property. The town filed evidence in court Nov. 21, asking Judge Mulhern to consider a Nov. 10 incident in which a worker fell from a ladder and suffered a serious head injury. When first responders arrived, Town Attorney Dan Murphy wrote in the filing, Ceccanti prevented York police from entering the property to assist.
York Police Lt. Luke Ernenwein said a medical call was made on that date to that address, but said there were no charges related to obstruction of justice that would result from someone preventing first responders from providing medical aid. The incident was captured on video submitted by the town in the court file, though, and Murphy asked in the filing for Ceccanti’s reaction to be considered by the judge.
“The incident is highly probative of the pattern that gave rise to the town’s request for declaratory relief confirming its right to secure the property,” Murphy wrote in the letter. The order was handed down two days later.
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What the court order states
The order requires Ceccanti to maintain existing fencing along the perimeter of the property and maintain a sufficient barrier to enclose the property. It states any debris piles, excluding dumpsters must remain within the construction fencing. Murphy and Code Enforcement Officer Amber Harrison have advised Selectboard members the property still contains hazardous debris from the fire, one of the factors that led to the building’s designation as dangerous.
Ceccanti may continue any work reasonably necessary to render the building weathertight, according to the order, and shall install any needed temporary bracings, posts, and support for the framing, rafters and similar architectural elements. She is not allowed to perform any additional work without permits or regulatory approval from the town.
Ceccanti must also suspend electricity service to the property except for construction purposes which include the use of an office trailer on the property. Code enforcement has said they are unsure whether Ceccanti has been living on the property since the fire. A neighbor told the Selectboard earlier this year they observed a cable worker attempting to bring service to 99 Freeman St. following the fire.
Town officials will be allowed access to the property on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., holidays excluded, to inspect the property to ensure the order is being followed, provided they give 48-hour notice. Ceccanti, the order states, shall not hinder, obstruct or prevent the town from entering the property or the building.
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The court will hear a status update after 120 days, according to the order, and the terms of the agreement will “continue in force until further order of the court.” Interim Town Manager Kathryn Lagasse told the board the town dodged what could have been a lengthy court battle.
Selectboard member Kinley Gregg said the board should have been directly notified of the terms of the agreement before the order was handed down. She pointed to the 48-hour notice town officials must give Ceccanti for visits to the site, asking if every property in town gets that “accommodation.”
“We didn’t see that settlement beforehand,” Kinley said. “It sounds like we pretty much took, or exactly took, the defense attorney’s proposal.”
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Can the historic home be restored?
Ceccanti has expressed a desire to restore the home, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The home, named “Pebbledene” for the pebbles on the nearby beach, is 2 ½ stories tall and overlooks the ocean. The fire took place May 13, badly damaging one of York’s remaining historic beach houses.
Frederick said he believes each board member has expressed they do not want to see the building demolished. This has been a fear of Ceccanti, according to supporters who spoke this year during Selectboard meetings. The board is authorized to demolish the building under Maine state statute regarding dangerous buildings. How Ceccanti can overcome the hurdle of the missing owner, he said, remains uncertain.
“The owner is still unclear,” Frederick said. “That needs to be resolved.”
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Judge shuts down construction at burned historic York Beach ME house