December 8, 2012

Maine family faces loss of home, which town calls unsafe

The town of China is taking court action to tear down a trailer and two outbuildings that it says are unsafe.

By SUSAN M. COVER Kennebec Journal

CHINA – Judith Farris and her daughter Becky Ratcliff know their home isn't pretty.

click image to enlarge

Judith Farris, left, and her daughter, Becky Ratcliff, may be moving from their China home, if the town carries an order to raze the trailer and outbuilding.

Andy Molloy / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Becky Ratcliff stays in an outbuilding she describes as a "bedroom" on the China property of her mother, Judith Farris, in China. The town may raze the property, forcing the couple to relocate.

Andy Molloy / Staff Photographer

As they stood outside at twilight among black trash bags, a pile of tires, and dozens of empty Dunkin' Donuts coffee cups, they complained that town officials have pestered them for years to clean up the property. They say dogs tear into their trash and the garbage man stopped coming. While there are holes inside the trailer, they say they have been patched with boards that are unattractive, but functional.

"If you look, we're poor people in a rich people's neighborhood," Ratcliff said. "It's better than living under a bridge or in the cars. It's just not pretty."

China Lake is visible not far in the distance, and the neighborhood features tidy summer cottages and year-round homes neatly decorated for the holidays.

Yet town officials say their living arrangement is more than ugly – it's dangerous.

The town has asked a judge to sign an order to allow the town to tear down the trailer and two outbuildings because they have been deemed unsafe.

It's relatively uncommon for towns to pursue court action against residents to have them removed and it's used "only in situations of imminent danger," said Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association. Typically, she said, selectmen are able to draw up agreements to help improve the situation.

An inspection in May showed no running water, inadequate toilets, black mold and holes in the floor and ceilings. Farris, 70, shares the trailer with her 19- and 17-year-old grandsons, while her daughter and son-in-law sleep in a 10-foot-by-12-foot shed connected to the trailer by an electrical cord.

Farris' home on Fire Road 60 near Village Street has been the subject of complaints by town residents for years, with a documented history of problems dating back to 2004.

Code Enforcement Officer Scott Pierz said he's been to the property multiple times, and that the buildings are now beyond repair. He's made attempts in recent weeks to find other housing for the family.

"My concern has been about a 70-year-old woman residing in a home and worrying about the conditions," Pierz said. "Where does she go?"

Ratcliff said they would like to hire a lawyer to fight the town, but don't have the money. If they are forced to move, they want to stay together as a family.

"Mom needs us," she said. "Nothing was affordable that's big enough for us. We asked if we could remodel and they told us no."

Although the town has ordered Farris to clean up junk from her yard for at least eight years, the latest issue began in May, when Farris went to the town to ask for help in repairing her hot water heater. Pierz brought along a team to inspect the property, including town Health Officer Alison Jorgensen.

"Upon entering the home, there was an extremely strong smell of ammonia from multiple cats and dogs urinating and defecating on the floor," her report states. "The flooring was debilitated with holes where the ground under the home was visible. Black mold was present on the flooring in front of the sink in the kitchen and flooring appeared to be quite insubstantial to the point of concern of someone falling through the flooring."

She notes that at the time of their visit, there was no running water in the home. Farris told Jorgensen that she hauled water from the lake to wash and drank water out of a nearby spring, according to the report.

On Thursday, Farris and Ratcliff said there is running water in the trailer now. A steady stream of water could be seen leaking from under the trailer.

(Continued on page 2)

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