STONINGTON — A roof collapse in July within a derelict section of the William Clark Thread Mill complex in Pawcatuck led to the partial demolition of a standalone building at 21 Pawcatuck Ave., but town officials and the staff of the Threadmill Apartments are turning up the pressure on owners of the main building to address safety and security concerns before it's too late.
Standing on the roof of the renovated Threadmill Apartments — a 58-unit apartment complex at 12 River Road and 5 Clark St. that is connected to the aging section — property manager Erik Johnson pointed to the structure, which is separated from the apartment building by a firewall.
The roof of the mill is bowed. Parts of it dip as much as 6 to 9 inches at some points, and with shingles peeling and the roof bending in other areas. There was standing water on a walk-out section one story below. Nearby, a fire escape led to a doorless third-story entry. Trespassers would have unfettered access.
"Our concern isn't the building out front. It's the larger building that shares a firewall with our own," Johnson said. "It's a safety and security issue for our tenants. The more this is allowed to sink into disrepair, the greater the chances they would be impacted by a collapse and the easier it makes the access for those who don't belong."
Problems at the property were exposed on July 24 when a beam broke loose within a small building just to the west of the main complex, causing the roof to collapse and leading to the discovery of 18 barrels containing a petroleum-based product. With help from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the contents of the barrels have since been removed.
The dilapidated structure is owned by Pawcatuck Riverview LLC and operates as Northeast Marine Inc. with an office on the site along Pawcatuck Avenue. It was purchased in 1998 and is part of three parcels that were part of the original mill, according to Stonington property records. To the north, separated by the firewall, is the apartment complex owned by Threadmill Partners LLC, a subsidiary of Westchester, N.Y.-based developer POKO Partners LLC. The company completed a $26.3 million renovation in 2016.
Two other standalone buildings to the southeast of the old mill, located at 7 River Road, belong to Norwest Marine Inc., which is not affiliated with Northeast Marine. Norwest Marine also owns and operates the marina on the Pawcatuck River across the street.
Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons and Pawcatuck Fire Marshal Byron Stillman said that the roof collapse led to the discovery of problems at the small and large buildings. An order issued on July 31 demanded that the owners fix the problems by Sept. 1. Their options would be repair the roof as well as the sprinkler and fire alarm systems, or to fully secure the property, remove all hazardous materials, cut power to it and formally bring it into vacant status.
Simmons said that he and Stillman had met with an assistant state's attorney on Aug. 16 to review the case. It the order is not met, state officials would get involved.
Stillman said it isn't the town's goal to have the property abandoned, but to get the owners to take responsibility and resolve safety concerns before someone gets hurt.
"I don't think anyone wants to see it abandoned," he said, noting that the intent of the order was to have the four-story building brought into compliance with state codes and regulations. "From my position as fire marshal, I'd rather see the roof fixed, and the fire alarm sprinkler and sprinkler systems repaired. That's what we'd like to see."
A phone message left with Northeast Marine was not returned. No one was available at the office, which was closed and locked up on Wednesday afternoon.
Stillman confirmed that work has started within the larger building, which had a half-full dumpster Wednesday containing materials from the basement. He said that as long as the owners make progress, he would work with them and allow reasonable accommodations. He noted that the deadline on the latest order was necessary, however, because demands made in previous orders were never addressed.
Town documents show that 21 Pawcatuck Ave. has a long history of violations and problems dating back to 2015, when a fire put a spotlight on dangerous building conditions.
According to town records made available to The Sun following a Freedom of Information request, firefighters responded to the property on May 2015 after fire broke out in the main mill portion. Stillman confirmed that at the time, the sprinklers were working and prevented the fire from spreading beyond the old mill.
In April 2016, officials again responded to 21 Pawcatuck Ave. when the smaller building sustained a partial roof collapse. Unlike the situation on July 24, the building did not contain hazardous materials, but Stillman and building officials did identify numerous safety concerns. Records show that Wayne Greene, a former town building official, issued citations to the owners.
"We met with the owners' engineer, who promised work would be done," Stillman explained. "The base of the buildings were cleaned, but no repairs were made to make the structures any safer."
Documents show that the town again issued an order for repairs in May 2017 after it was discovered that a fire alarm system was not working properly.
In January 2018, after a call to the property for frozen pipes, officials found that none of the problems had been addressed. On March 14, 2018, the Pawcatuck fire marshal's office issued a stiffer order, noting that "roofing membrane was badly damaged and wind was pulling it off of the building." Again, the town demanded immediate repairs, the owners said they would carry out the order, but the repairs were never made.
Stillman said he understands that remediation can be difficult and expensive, but that the building is "a true safety hazard." He noted that if there's a message for property owners in the community from these episodes, it's that keeping a roof in working order is essential to prevent buildings from degrading into complete disrepair.
"If owners just protect their roof, it'll keep the building standing," he said.
Johnson and residents at the Threadmill Apartments, many of whom have filed complaints with the Stonington building department, said they won't stop pressing the issue until the building is repaired or removed.
"We don't want to just complain, but we can't ignore it," Johnson said. "If we don't push the issue, we are not doing what we need to for our tenants or neighborhood." He said he had let neighboring property owners know that "we will do what we can to help out."