NORTH YARMOUTH – Windows shattered, hand-hewn timbers cracked and walls collapsed, sending up clouds of dust where one of the town’s oldest homes had stood on Baston Road since the early 1800s.

When the Yarmouth Water District ripped down the late Marvin and Ruby Beckwith’s former house on July 13 without town permission, it destroyed a largely undocumented but important facet of local and regional history.

Now, the backhoe is gone, the 200-year-old farm is eerily quiet, and the water district faces a significant fine for its unbridled effort to protect groundwater. All that remains at 129 Baston Road is a fieldstone cellar filled with debris and rimmed with Ruby Beckwith’s lilies and lilac trees.

“It was so sad,” said Mickey Thompson, a neighbor and friend who witnessed the demolition. “It was like Ruby died again when that house came down.”

Thompson is one of many who mourn the destruction of the historic 30- by 36-foot,Cape-style house and hope the Board of Selectmen holds the water district accountable.

Water district officials have apologized, claiming ignorance of regulations that apply in most towns and promising to make amends. Still, some townspeople question whether the district razed the vacant house so quickly — one month after buying the 17-acre property — to avoid potential costs and inconveniences associated with historic preservation.

Town ordinances required the water district, which serves Yarmouth and North Yarmouth, to get a demolition permit and notify the North Yarmouth Historical Society 30 days before razing any structure built before 1900. The district didn’t do either, so the society had no chance to save the house.

If selectmen seek the maximum penalty allowed under Maine law, the fine could be as high as $12,500 for each violation.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance,” said Steven Palmer, selectmen chairman. “We had a historic building and it was gone in a couple of hours. Some people might say it was deliberate. I’m not going down that road. We had a permit violation and we’re going to deal with it.”

Selectmen will discuss the matter Aug. 21. The penalty will be negotiated with water district officials.

Under state law, violations of land use ordinances carry fines of $100 to $2,500 per day. The water district razed the house five days before Barb Skelton, the town’s code enforcement officer, issued an after-the-fact demolition permit that cost $50, which was $25 more than a timely permit.

The permit gives the historical society until Aug. 18 to inventory what’s left of the house before the water district can fill the cellar and finish grading the site.

“It’s all about mitigation now,” said Katie Murphy, historical society president. “Part of our history is gone and it’s pretty infuriating. We’re a volunteer board and we rely on the community to keep us informed. Part of our grief is that we never heard anything about this and we wonder why.”

Lincoln Merrill, a society board member, is less guarded in his reaction.

“I’m angry,” Merrill said. “It’s a crying shame that building was torn down and I don’t believe it was an accident. It could have been moved. They could have given it away. I’ve got 40 acres. I would have taken it if nobody else wanted it.”

PROTECTING GROUNDWATER

Water district officials said they negotiated the land deal with help from abutters who didn’t want the property developed. They never discussed getting a demolition permit or notifying the historical society, according to Bob MacKinnon, district superintendent.

MacKinnon said he wasn’t aware of either requirement, in part because he had no demolition experience. The district’s board of trustees wanted to buy the Beckwith property for years, he said, and always intended to tear down the house.

“It was a stupid mistake,” MacKinnon said. “I understand why people are upset and if I had known, I would have gotten a permit. It wasn’t meant to circumvent any municipal regulations. I feel very badly about it. It could have been easily accommodated. I take full responsibility.”

MacKinnon said he wanted to raze the house even sooner because “our insurance company was all over us to get the building down because it was a liability.”

Most of the demolition debris was taken to Riverside Recycling in Portland, town records show. Some parts were sought by neighbors or salvaged by the demolition contractor, Scott Dugas Trucking & Excavating in Yarmouth, including the 30-foot-long center roof beam and antique floor boards. Dugas estimated the demolition would cost $10,000, MacKinnon said.

Stephen Gorden, North Yarmouth’s representative on the district’s five-member board, said details of the property sale and house demolition were handled by MacKinnon and lawyers.

“We’re a policy board. We concentrated on the preservation of the aquifer,” Gorden said. “I cannot fathom why no one ever brought up the historical aspect of the building. I live in the neighborhood. I walked by that house. I feel badly and I know the (other trustees) do, too. We really stepped in it.”

The district bought the house and land for $270,341 from John and Dennis Beckwith, the sons of Marvin Beckwith, who died in 2007, and Ruby Beckwith, who died in 2011. The closing was June 6.

The district had enough money to buy the property, MacKinnon said, but it accepted a $165,341 loan from next-door neighbors Paul and Audrey Lones in an effort to promote community partnership. The district will repay the Loneses in a year, MacKinnon said.

An email sent June 1 from the district’s lawyer to the Loneses’ lawyer indicates that the Loneses insisted that the house and a shed be removed.

“You will recall that your client required that the district raze the buildings,” Marcia Corradini of Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry wrote to Drew Anderson of Murray Plumb & Murray, both Portland firms.

“It wasn’t our desire to have it torn down,” clarified Audrey Lones, who is a member of the historical society. “That may have been a discussion between the attorneys.”

Lones said she and her husband were focused on preserving the 17 acres as open space and protecting groundwater. The couple also wanted to remove deeded rights that the Beckwiths held to a shared well on the Loneses’ property, she said.

“We knew the district would have to remove the house (to protect the aquifer),” Lones said. “We didn’t know whether they would tear it down or move it. We had no idea what the condition of the house was. We weren’t thinking long-term about the building.”

Paul Lones said Corradini’s email likely referred to one version of the land deal in which the Loneses would have owned the property for a short time and would have wanted the house removed for liability reasons.

RAZING HISTORY

The final land deal included a special agreement that ensures the Beckwith property will remain undeveloped, available for haying and organic farming, and open to public recreation such as cross-country skiing and fishing.

Under local zoning, four additional single-family homes could have been built on the property, but the Beckwith family didn’t want to go through the expense and hassle of marketing or developing the land, according to John Beckwith.

But while MacKinnon said the house was in poor condition, Beckwith disputed that notion. It had few recent updates inside, he said, but it was well maintained outside, with fresh white paint and a new metal roof.

Beckwith said he thought the water district wanted the house until he learned otherwise at the closing.

“It was in really good shape,” said Beckwith, 70, who grew up in the house and lives in South Portland. “I wish I had known they didn’t have town approval to tear it down. I would have notified them myself. It’s very sad it’s all gone.”

Beckwith said a deed search traced the house back to 1845. His parents paid $1,500 for the property in 1943, when it still had no electricity, no furnace, a two-seater outhouse and a hand pump in the kitchen sink. Running water, a bathroom and other modern conveniences were added soon after.

“My parents loved that farm,” Beckwith said. “I don’t think they would be too happy about it being torn down.”

The Beckwith house wasn’t listed as a historical landmark, but town historians figure it was built around 1800 and may have been moved from another site.

Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth reviewed a photo from the town’s tax records and agreed on its relative age.

“It has the classic lines of a center-chimney Cape built around 1800,” he said. “It probably was very well built.”

Shettleworth said he couldn’t assess the historical value of the Beckwith house because he never visited it, but its age gave it clear significance. He was surprised that the water district decided to tear it down, because antique Capes are very desirable, he said, especially if they’re in near original condition like the Beckwith house.

He said an archeological dig would reveal what’s left to learn about the property.

“We may have lost the building,” he said, “but there’s still an opportunity to uncover artifacts and other information that would be valuable to local and regional historians.”

Historical society members are talking about having the water district fund an archeological dig as a way to make amends for tearing down the house.

They also may ask the district to help with other preservation projects, including public education about the value of historic structures.

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” Merrill said, “after all that’s happened.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com