Court issues demolition order for Cowan Mill

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AUBURN — An Androscoggin County Superior Court judge issued an order Tuesday morning to demolish the Cowan Mill at Great Falls in Lewiston.

The mill, built in 1850, was gutted by an arson fire last week; Lewiston city officials sought the demolition order in the interest of public safety. Justice Thomas Delahanty II issued the order after a brief hearing.

Attorney Trish McAllister, who represented the city, argued that the mill was unsafe and posed a public hazard. She called two witnesses to the stand to support the city’s complaint.

She asked Assistant Lewiston Fire Chief George Merrill whether the brick shell posed a serious and immediate threat. “It does,” he said. Merrill said three floors collapsed in pancake fashion during the fire and may have buried a hidden fire that could still be smoldering.

“It was probably one of the biggest fires I’ve ever seen here in Lewiston,” Merrill said. “It was huge.”

Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s director of planning and code enforcement, testified that it was the worst fire he’d seen. Asked whether the remains posed a hazard, he said: “It’s horrifically unsafe.”

Nothing is holding the walls in place, he said. A guard was posted at the property on Thursday and has remained there since to keep the public at bay.

“Anybody who got near that building could be injured or killed,” Arsenault said.

Julie Adair, daughter of property owner Martin Finley and who held a mortgage, told the judge she agreed the building was unsafe and should be made safe through demolition. 

Justice Delahanty said the building constituted a threat to public safety and ordered its demolition.

Demolition crews from Chabot Construction of Greene had been at the mill site since early Tuesday morning, awaiting the court order, and were poised to start demolition work as soon as the judge ordered. 

The city’s intent in rushing the court order and demolition was, according to the city’s budget and purchasing director, Norm Beauparlant, “to get rid of the safety issue.”

The Chabot crew is expected to demolish the mill’s exterior walls and smokestack that remain standing, collapsing the materials into the center of the mill. Clearing the site and removing the remaining bricks will be done later. The demolition of the walls is expected to take anywhere from several days to a couple of weeks, city officials said. The city anticipates spending about $60,000 on the initial demolition work, but the second phase of the project — to remove the debris and clean the site — is expected to be much more expensive and take much longer.

“We haven’t even crossed that bridge yet,” Acting City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. 

Investigators from the Maine State Police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Lewiston police declared the fire arson less than 24 hours after it started. No arrest has been made

Adair said after the hearing that she and her father didn’t expect to retain ownership.

“I think we’re gonna lose it,” she said. They would have to pay off a lien to Platz Associates stemming from a lawsuit involving plans for the site ordered by Finley’s former development partner, Travis Soule, as well as the cost of demolition, she said.

The property had been on the market and Realtors had been in and out recently, she said.

Adair, who held a mortgage, lost $100,000 plus about $25,000 in interest due to the fire, she said.

“My daughter’s college money — it was pretty devastating,” she said.

Adair said she had stored a piano and a large slate sink in the vacant mill. Her father’s fleet of 45 antique cars were removed in 2004, she said. She speculated that kids may have filled the sink with sticks and started a fire that got out of control and ignited the mill’s timbers, which were saturated with machine oil.

“I can imagine it could have been an innocent mistake,” she said.

Her father, Martin Finley, had hoped to restore the former mill into an antique mall where he and other dealers would display their antiquities. The former grist mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But his hopes went up in flames a week ago.

“He’s pretty devastated,” Adair said. She has talked to her father, who is in China, every day since the fire.

“He’s just seeing all of his dreams being thrown away,” she said.

They had tried to insure the property but couldn’t because it was vacant.

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