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  • Bangor Daily News

    Tall grass, debris and rats top residents’ concerns at Houlton meeting

    By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli,


    HOULTON, Maine — A Houlton business owner and resident said during the regular town council meeting on Monday night that he wants the town to put some teeth into code enforcement efforts.

    Josh McLaughlin, owner of J. McLaughlin Construction who lives on Park Street, said that as a taxpayer and business owner who donates a lot of time and money to the community, the condition of the community seems to be going downhill rapidly and it is escalating out of control.

    “The trash and rat infestation is pathetic at best,” McLaughlin said. “There isn’t a street in town that doesn’t have a house with tall grass … the walking trail downtown, there’s encampments that get moved along by police but they come back.”

    Just last month, McLaughlin donated the $26,000 cost of groundwork for the recreation department’s four new pickleball courts in town.

    He pointed to Ben Torres, the town code enforcement officer, saying that he is a very good, energetic code enforcement officer and he’d like to see what can be done to support him to get something done.

    “I’m assuming he’s out there making phone calls, knocking on doors and sending letters,” McLaughlin said, adding that he’s heard that it takes a long time to get action through the courts, but he doesn’t care, the town needs to do more.

    On Tuesday afternoon Torres explained how Houlton code enforcement works.

    When he receives a complaint his first step is to contact the resident and verify its validity. If a violation exists, he talks with the property owner about the ordinance or code they are violating, and the remedy and time frame for completion, he said.

    The time frames vary from seven to 30 days depending on the violation.

    “I will also direct them to any publicly available resources that may be able to assist with their remediation project,” he said. “I will return on/around the end of the initial time frame and check on the situation.”

    If no steps have been taken to remove the violation, he follows up with an official notice of violation sent via certified mail specifying the violation, time frame for remediation, penalties, and right to appeal.

    This process continues through a third notice. If the violation remains, Torres said he forwards the notices and supporting documentation to the town attorney, and a judge will compel the property owner to remove the violation, he said, adding that the judge may also give the town permission to remediate the property and bill the owner for expenses.

    “I’ve also heard people say well it’s everywhere, it’s the same in other communities, again I don’t care,” McLaughlin said. “It’s daunting and depressing at best. Together we need to figure out a way to curb this and I trust all of you have the same opinions.”

    McLaughlin said he did not have all the answers but he would gladly be part of the solution.

    “I know everyone is short staffed and working hard. but maybe we need to be there everyday,” he said.

    Kim Folsom, who came to the meeting to talk about the condition of the town parks, said she backs up what McLaughlin said.

    “I have sent an email to the code enforcement officer asking him to check into a few things in the neighborhoods because it really is going down and we shouldn’t have to look at some of this stuff,” she said.

    Folsom continued to talk about the contractor the town uses to take care of weeding, debris removal, mulching and ground cover in Riverfront Park from July 4 through Sept. 30. This year’s contract bid from County Turf Pro came in at $4,815.

    “I’ve harped on it for three years. This is the fourth year. We’re paying almost $5,000 a year for somebody to do something and I have no idea what they are doing,” Folsom said. “I keep thinking next year it will be taken care of, it’s not being taken care of.”

    The work was not done last year before the Fourth of July, Folsom, and several council members said, adding that July 4 was fast approaching.

    “I think if every community member could find $5,000 we are wasting, we’d have a lot of money,” Folsom  said.

    The town council was slated to vote on the County Turf Pro bid on Monday. They voted it down, deciding to prepare a more detailed expectation for the lawn maintenance work before awarding this year’s contract.

    County Turf Pro owner Joel Cook could not be reached for comment.

    Town Councilor Jon McLaughlin said he wanted the town to prepare a report by the next council meeting about the issues presented at the meeting so they can start looking into what can be done.

    Town Manager Jeremy Smith said another thing they haven’t looked at are organizations that help people that don’t have the financial or physical means to get the work done.

    “A little action snowballs and builds a little more action,” he said. “There’s a number of people struggling financially and physically to get the work done.”

    But other council members agreed with McLaughlin regarding holding residents accountable.

    Smith said that if there are code violations or people harboring rodents, he agrees, adding that he would reach out to other communities to see what they have done in similar situations.

    Town Councilor Jane Torres suggested Smith check with Presque Isle regarding putting an ordinance in place.

    According to Smith when the town gives a code violation citation, it is not that speedy.

    “That’s why we need an ordinance,” Jane Torres said.

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