EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 17, 2014

City orders owner to demolish fire-ravaged mill

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — The city’s Building Commissioner yesterday ordered the owner of the landmark mill destroyed in a fire Monday to secure the teetering red brick facade that the inferno left behind and submit a plan for demolishing it by tomorrow.

Two demolition and excavation contractors were at the South Canal Street site at 2 p.m. yesterday, shortly after owner David Padellaro received the order from the city.

Padellaro hung up when a reporter reached him by phone in an attempt to discuss his plans for the ruin, as he did the day before.

“He said he was going to get things buttoned up and start working on demolition,” said Acting Fire Chief John Marsh, citing a conversation building inspectors had with Padellaro.

Padellaro took back possession of the 130-year-old mill late Wednesday, when state and city fire investigators, aided by a team of dogs trained to sniff out chemical accelerants, ended their work and left without disclosing any findings about what set off the two-hour fireball.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state Fire Marshal, said the job of sifting through the charred bricks, beams and other debris at the site of the fire is only part of the investigation and that it remains active. She could not say when the investigation might end.

“They’re working on interviewing folks and gathering more evidence,” Mieth said.

For most of Tuesday and Wednesday, the investigators narrowed their search for evidence to just inside the front entrance to the former mill building, where witnesses and the first firefighters to arrive Monday at dusk reported seeing the first flames.

Chief Marsh said state investigators have not shared any findings with him. But he said he suspects the fire may have been set — either deliberately or accidentally — because the building had no gas or electric service and there are no other obvious causes, such as lightening.

The mill complex has been empty since the Merrimac Paper Co. closed it in 2005. Developer Stephen Stapinski bought it later that year with the hope of building a commercial and residential project on the site, but the city never approved it. In 2010, he sold the former mill to Padellaro for $1 in a deal that city officials said was intended to help Stapinski dodge the delinquent tax bill, which by then had reached $4 million.

There is widespread pessimism in City Hall that Padellaro, who was forced off the city’s police force for misconduct in the 1990s, would make good on any promise to demolish the building. The unpaid tax bill, which he inherited from Stapinski along with the deed, has reached $5.4 million.

Padellaro also has not completed the demolition of a second mill building next door to the one that burned Monday. The city ordered him to demolish the adjoining building about three years ago, but the work stalled when the state continually rejected Padellaro’s plans to safely remove asbestos and other toxics.

The demolition became further entangled when several of contractors quit the job, saying Padellaro had stopped paying them. In 2012, Padellaro was charged with three counts of larceny when checks he gave to contractors allegedly bounced.

City Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette said he expects the cost of demolishing the mill that burned Monday could reach $500,000.

“As much as I’m hoping he does something, I think the chances are very slim,” Blanchette said Wednesday as he prepared the order to demolish the mill that Padellaro received yesterday.