BIDDEFORD – An iconic piece of Biddeford’s skyline has languished on the ground in the city’s downtown for years, and the city is pushing the owners of the Lincoln Mill to move it.
The Lincoln Mill clock tower has sat on blocks of wood against the wall of the brick building on Lincoln Street after being removed for restoration nearly six years ago. Still unrestored, it is now covered with peeling paint, rotting wood, vines and pigeon droppings, a fate that prompted city officials to take legal action.
The mill owner has been issued summonses and told he needs to remove the historic structure, as well as fix a nearby fence that is propped up with boards.
The owners of the mill are fighting the summonses in court, saying they want to restore the clock tower, but need time to work with city officials to come up with a plan.
The clock tower — first erected in 1896 atop what was then the country’s second-largest textile mill — was removed by the building’s previous owners in 2007, a move the current owners tried unsuccessfully to stop. The idea was to restore the tower, but it has instead sat untouched for five years as Greg Bennett and Chris Betjemann of Odyssey Properties LLC restore the mill building.
Bennett was issued three summonses last July for the placement of the clock tower and the condition of the fence, but he is fighting those in court as he waits to meet with city officials about what to do with the tower, said Scott Giese, Bennett’s attorney. Giese said a Biddeford District Court judge has yet to rule on his motion to dismiss the case on the grounds the summonses were issued to Bennett instead of Odyssey Properties. The case will be taken up again during a March hearing in district court.
Giese said Bennett wants to restore the clock tower and put it back in its rightful place atop the mill, which started production in 1853. Giese has been trying to schedule a meeting with city officials to discuss what to do about the clock tower, but said he hasn’t heard back yet.
“(Bennett and Betjemann) are trying to come up with a long-term plan for the mill,” Giese said. “There’s no reason (Bennett) should be fined. A meeting (with city officials) could have happened before he got summonsed.”
Mayor Alan Casavant said the city has a good relationship with the mill owners and wants to work with them to find a solution.
“I’m certain some sort of solution can come out of all of this. It’s just a question of figuring it out,” he said.
The clock tower’s location on the ground next to the mill drew concerns from city officials as soon as it was placed there, according to city documents. In May 2007, former mill owners Gordon MacDonald and Mike Scott applied for a demolition permit to remove the clock tower, but were denied by the code enforcement office.
At the time, they told city officials they planned to take the clock tower down in one piece and put it back once it was restored. They were issued a permit to remove the clock tower after a review by a structural engineer showed it posed a public safety hazard.
Betjemann, Bennett’s business partner, went to court in an attempt to stop the clock tower’s removal, saying he was under contract to buy the building. That effort failed and the clock tower was lowered to its current resting spot.
In a December 2007 letter to MacDonald, former Fire Chief Robert Fournier said he was under the impression the clock tower would be placed in a back parking lot, not along Lincoln Street. The letter also said the clock tower was a fire hazard because of its placement against the mill’s glass doors and windows. The owners were told to move the clock tower or face court action and fines.
But more than five years later, the clock tower remains in the same spot. Its condition came to the attention of the code enforcement office last summer when a resident filed a complaint.
In a notice of violation dated July 18, 2012, code enforcement officer George Montieth said the clock tower has to be removed because the owners do not have a permit to keep it in its current location and it does not meet building codes. The clock tower is a fire hazard and has “become a blighting problem,” Montieth wrote.
Montieth also addressed the condition of the fence that runs along the Lincoln Mill property and between the clock tower and the sidewalk. He described the fence as being in “major disrepair.”
“Propping 2x4s against the fence and tying it together with a rope or chain is not structurally sound or in good repair,” he wrote.
Montieth referred questions about the clock tower to Roby Fecteau, the city’s director of code enforcement, who did not return calls for comment.
Giese said Bennett disputes he is the owner of the fence. However, city records show the fence was installed by a previous Lincoln Mill owner and is the responsibility of Bennett and his company.
A meeting with city officials could help the mill owners come up with a plan for the clock tower until it is restored, Giese said. Some ideas batted around include shrink-wrapping the tower, building a foundation for it or moving it to another part of the property to make it less visible. Bennett may also find a way to raise money to help fund the restoration, he said.
Aurelie Wallach, chairwoman of the Biddeford Historic Preservation Commission, said the commission could advise Bennett about the clock tower restoration, but otherwise plays no role in how the situation plays out. The clock tower is a city icon that now shows neglect that does not accurately reflect the work Bennett and Betjemann have put into the building, she said.
“(The clock tower) is a symbol of our city and we’re missing it,” she said.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: