LAWRENCE — The 134-year old former paper mill consumed by fire last night has been one of the most troubled properties in the city since Andover developer Stephen Stapinski bought it for $82,500 in October 2005 with the hope of building a mixed residential and commercial development.
The complex of buildings deteriorated as Stapinski waited for approvals from the city, which never came. The city eventually condemned the complex and ordered Stapinski to board it up.
Several fires ensued before last night’s, including one on Nov. 6, 2009, that sent flames high enough that their glow could be seen by spectators at Veterans Stadium a mile or two away.
As the proposed development at the former Merrimac Paper mill stalled and the buildings sat empty, Stapinski’s unpaid property tax bill climbed to $4 million by 2010, when he sold the complex to former city cop David Padellaro for $1 in a sale that officials said was an effort to dodge the tax bill, which Padellaro inherited along with the deed.
Then-Mayor William Lantigua promised to explore “whatever legal remedies I have at my disposal” to force Stapinski’s development company to pay the taxes and related fees, including filing a lien on Stapinski’s Andover house and on a half-acre on Broadway in Lawrence that Stapinski and his partner, King Weinstein, were then leasing to a Burger King franchise.
The city never went forward with the liens.
Lantigua’s former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, also questioned whether Padellaro had the resources to do much with the former mill, and said the $125,000 Stapinski gave Padellaro to pay for the demolition as part of the sale would fall short by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I don’t know anybody in their right mind who would want to have this property with all the issues involved,” Degnan said at the time. “Four major fires. A $2.8 million tax bill. Who would want this property? It’s an investment that went bad that (Stapinski) now wants to walk away from.”
In fact, demolition stalled when Padellaro’s contractors were unable to get the state to approve their plans for safely removing toxics, such as asbestos in a building adjoining the main mill structure that burned last night.
The demolition work became further entangled as Padellaro fought with several contractors over the project, including Western Oil of Lincoln, R.I., whose owner said he received three bad checks totaling about $6,700 from Padellaro.
In 2012, Padellaro was charged with three counts of larceny in connection with the alleged bad checks.
The building containing most of the toxics was not damaged last night. Fire Chief John Marsh said he was not aware of environmental hazards in the main mill building that was destroyed.
It could not be determined last night whether any of the unpaid $4 million tax bill that Stapinski passed onto Padellaro had been paid or has grown since 2010.
After another fire in 2010, the city posted a fire guard on the property and sent Padellaro the bills. The bills reached $150,000 and also went unpaid and, when Padellaro protested that he couldn’t afford them, the city agreed to withdraw the firefighters and to allow him to post his own guards.
Yesterday, Marsh said he did not know if the guards were on the property when the fire broke out.
Despite the alleged animosity between Padellaro and the city over the unpaid bill, Padellero posted a sign on the property that said it would be redeveloped. The sign included Lantigua’s name, suggesting the city was a partner in the project. Lantigua’s former economic development director, Patrick Blanchette, said when the sign went up that Lantigua did not give Padellaro permission to post his name on it and asked him to remove it.
The sign remained on the property through the years. Last night, it flickered in the light of the blaze.