Sanford officials are seeking state and federal funds to help assess and clean up environmental contamination at the Stenton Trust Mill building that was gutted by a fire last week.

The Sanford City Council on Tuesday asked City Manager Steven Buck to continue to explore options to pay for what could be a costly and time-consuming cleanup of the site that contains two long-vacant mill buildings. Councilors said the ultimate goal should be the removal of both mill buildings on the property to prepare it to be sold for redevelopment.

The meeting comes as city officials are working to untangle who owns the property and determine who will pay to secure and demolish the hulking structures.

It took 155 firefighters from 26 communities, 7 million gallons of water and several days to completely extinguish the massive fire that engulfed one of the Stenton buildings Friday night. Three boys – two 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old – have been charged with felony arson.

“We are told that this is a career fire, that it just does not happen ever,” Buck said while showing drone footage of the fire engulfing the vacant mill.

Buck’s update to the council during an emergency meeting was the first time that councilors and the public have been updated on both the response to extinguish and investigate the fire, and the complicated matter of figuring out who owns the property and who is going to pay for the cleanup.

TRACKING PROPERTY’S OWNERSHIP

According to city tax records, Gateway Properties LLC, operated by Jonathan Morse, is the current registered owner of the mill, but Morse has denied that he owns the property, Buck said. Gateway and Morse purchased the property in 1999, but fell behind on mortgage payments and property taxes within a decade.

The Savings Bank of Maine was the last entity to pay property taxes on the land and buildings, according to the Sanford treasury office, when it cut a check for $15,109.31 in 2009 to cover the 2006 tax year.

An auction in 2009 yielded a high bidder, Boston Commons Investments LLC, which agreed to pay $210,000 for the property, but the deal fell apart before it could be closed, Buck said.

The York County Registry of Deeds shows the last entry for the property was at the same time of the auction, when Gardiner Savings Institution moved to foreclose on Nov. 10, 2009, and entered Boston Commons Investments as the high bidder.

But the deed to the property was never transferred, leading to the ongoing confusion over who will be responsible for the property and the cleanup.

The city of Sanford also passed multiple times on foreclosing on the property, which would have made the city its legal owner. Every year since 2010, Sanford has waived its right to foreclose, according to city documents.

The taxes remain unpaid today.

At last tally, the owner of the building owes Sanford $157,521.72 in unpaid property taxes, not counting fees and interest.

There are numerous other liens on the property for water and sewerage fees, as well as liens filed by contractors who claim they were never paid by Gateway Properties for services rendered at the building over the years.

The complex includes two five-story brick-and-concrete buildings and a one-story connecting structure. The front building, which faces River Street, sustained minor damage from the fire.

IDENTIFYING HAZARDS, SEEKING HELP

Within two days of the fire, Buck was contacting the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about options to apply for state and federal funds to help pay for clean-up at the property.

The mill building was known to contain asbestos, but Buck said initial assessments from the DEP indicate there are no signs of water or air contamination associated with the fire. Buck said monitoring is ongoing and will include a visit to the city this week by a representative of the DEP’s asbestos and lead paint division.

The state’s Brownfield coordinator has sent a recommendation to the EPA for assessment under the EPA Removal Program and the city should get a response by the end of the week, Buck said.

If the city does not receive any federal or state assistance, it will have to pay for the remediation and removal of the buildings through a bond or use of the undesignated fund balance, Buck said. He did not have an estimate Tuesday for how much that could cost the city, but earlier said just the removal of debris could top $500,000.

“Let’s hope we get some assistance,” he said.

The City Council unanimously authorized spending $4,600 to rent more than 1,000 feet of construction fencing for six months to secure the mill buildings, which are no longer considered a crime scene.

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Cutter said the immediate concern about the building is the stability of the structure, which was built in the 1920s using steel and concrete. During the fire, one wall appears to have twisted outward. The steel has lost strength because of the exposure to intense heat from the fire.

City councilors cited the safety hazard at the building as one of the primary factors for taking down the buildings, but they also discussed the opportunity to sell the property to a developer.

“I feel we should take both buildings down, both from a public safety and economic development standpoint,” Councilor Lucas Lanigan said. “It’s in the heart of our downtown and could be a good opportunity to create a new face for our community.”

Investigators have not released details of how they believe the fire started, but the three boys each have been charged with one count of felony arson. According to the state Fire Marshal’s Office, the flames are believed to have originated on the mill’s third floor and rapidly spread to the entire building.

The boys were ordered detained by a judge on Monday, and are being held at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. All three boys are due back in court July 27.

There is no bail for juveniles, who must go before a judge to determine whether they will be incarcerated, released temporarily pending the outcome of their cases, or admitted to alternative accommodations, such as a treatment program.

BOYS DENY RESPONSIBILITY

All three boys denied responsibility in the case, the equivalent in the juvenile justice system of entering a not guilty plea.

No one answered the door at the homes of two of the boys. A woman who answered the door at the third home ordered a reporter off the property and would not comment further.

During the City Council meeting, several councilors mentioned how often city youths entered the building, including to use a “skate park” on an upper floor of one building. Deputy Mayor Maura Herlihy implored other children to stay out of the buildings.

“These (boys) are three of hundreds who have been in those mills and done something stupid,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

Twitter: MattByrnePPH