NORWAY — The legal case to determine what compensation the town must pay the former owner of the Norway Opera House begins Thursday in Oxford County Superior Court.

“It is conceivable that the judge’s decision and the expenses will exceed what is available, so then we will have to decide what to do and this will be dependent on the circumstance that we face,” Town Manager David Holt said.

Last year, voters at a special town meeting authorized selectmen to take the Opera House property by eminent domain after a portion of the roof on the historic 1894 downtown building collapsed on Sept. 21, 2007. The collapse severed a sprinkler pipe which flooded occupied first-floor spaces in the building and compromised the stability of the structure.

The move was initiated after attempts by the town to work with the former owner, Barry Mazzaglia of Bitim Enterprises in Londonderry, N.H., to ensure the building was safe became unproductive. The town has since stabilized the back wall of the building that showed signs of collapsing.

Officials became alarmed by the condition of the building after two engineering studies showed it to be “unsafe to the public and neighboring property.”

The 17,618-square-foot structure, which sits on a roughly quarter-acre parcel, includes a one-story and three-story building with a full basement and a four-story clock tower.

In October the town and Bitim Enterprises failed to reach a settlement agreement and instead opted for a non-jury proceeding in Oxford County Superior Court in Paris. The court will determine how much money the town must pay Mazzaglia for taking the building by eminent domain.

Mazzaglia has contended the building is worth $328,000, according to an appraisal from J. Chet Rogers of Hollis, N.H., while the town has had the building appraised for $185,000.

Despite a $200,000 donation from Bill and Beatrice Damon of Norway that will be applied against the court judgment, legal fees have begun to mount.

Currently, the town faces more than $30,000 in legal fees relating to the Opera House, said Holt.

“Fees for legal and experts have exceeded 30 thousand … so if the judge fixes the cost at $185,000, then $15,000 of the Damon’s money could be used” for legal fees, Holt said in an email. Selectmen have also directed that community development funds in the town’s account also be used for Opera House expenses, he said.

Holt said the Opera House Corp. has indicated a willingness to raise funds should the judge decide the town must compensate Mazzaglia more than $185,000, he said.

A total of $185,000 of the $200,000 donation from the Damons was released last year to the Oxford County courthouse where it is being held pending a determination by a judge on what price the town will have to pay to obtain the building.

Holt said the “long and uncertain road” selectmen knew they faced through the eminent domain process was what led them to spend more than a year trying to resolve the issues through cooperation with the former owner before going the eminent domain route.

The proceeding will begin at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday. Pat Amidon, of Amidon Appraisal Co. in Portland, environmental expert Mark Coleman and Al Hodson, owner of Resurgence Engineering and Preservation Inc. of Portland, are expected to be called as witnesses for the town, according to an email from attorney James E. Belleau of the Auburn law firm of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott to Holt on Monday.

Holt and former code enforcement officer Jeff Van Decker may also be called to testify about the occupancy, use and condition of the Opera House over the years, according to the Belleau’s email.

Witnesses for Mazzaglia are also expected to give testimony during the trial, which is scheduled for two days.

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