BREWER — The Jean Emerson saga, a stranger-than-fiction tale from the beginning, probably deserves an ending like this:
Living in her car after a judge determined the rundown house she rented was a “real and present danger,” Emerson moves to Abbot to live rent-free with a sympthetic resident.
In February, the tenant who didn’t pay rent for six years leaves on her second annual jaunt to Florida for the Daytona 500. But this year is different — she is joined by the husband of Brewer’s chief code enforcer.
Meanwhile, sometime this month, the city quietly moves to demolish the house, an action it voted on a year ago.
Strange, perhaps, but true.
It was a year ago that city officials held their first public hearing on the deterioration of 160 Wilson St., Emerson’s home for six years. Rooms were collapsing and ceilings were peeling. A foul odor of kerosene, cigarette smoke and pet feces permeated the air.
The house plummeted in value from $40,000 in 1989 to $4,100 in 1995. Shortly after moving there in 1991, Emerson stopped paying rent to Elva Abbott, the elderly Welsh woman who had owned the house since 1946. Abbott had to pay a large portion of the home’s sewer fees herself.
The city assumed ownership of the house, the result of a matured sewer lien, and thus began Brewer’s tortuous eviction efforts. At one time, the city and Emerson were locked in four separate court battles and two appeals.
In August, however, a judge ordered her out. Emerson and her two dogs took to living in her car.
In October, while watching a televised news report on the situation, retired Abbot resident Harold Derby decided he had to do something.
“I was nervous about her and her animals,” he said. “We did what we thought was our Christian duty and brought her in.”
Emerson now lives in a heated camper on a wooded lot adjacent to a mobile home shared by Derby and his nephew. Derby, 67, said he doesn’t charge Emerson rent. He does ask her to pay $100 a month for fuel, but acknowledged that he’s helped her pay for that as well.
“She’s financially embarrassed because she’s not receiving the income she should,” he said. Emerson, 55, says she lives on $274 a month in Social Security disability benefits.
Derby said he knew Emerson was going to Florida but believed she was making the trip because a doctor said the weather would help her ailing back. He didn’t think she’d be going to Daytona.
“I think it’s just a figment of her imagination,” he said. “It’s going to cost a fortune just to get into the race track. She hasn’t got that kind of money.”
That news may come as a suprise to the husband of Peggy Elmer, Brewer’s chief code enforcement officer. Irvin Elmer bought a ticket to the Feb. 15 race from Emerson and will sit next to her and her sister-in-law during the race.
The city code enforcer said the friendship she developed with Emerson made her more effective in handling the case. Peggy Elmer is also trusted by Abbott, the house’s former owner.
“It makes it much easier to be friendly than to have people screaming and hollering,” Elmer explained. “Everybody deserves to be treated well and with a certain amount of dignity.”
Elmer’s husband is a longtime fan of NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. When she learned that Emerson had an extra ticket, she seized the opportunity.
“He would never have gone if it were not for me,” Elmer said.
At roughly the same time Emerson leaves for Daytona, the city will likely be engaged in demolition proceedings on the Wilson Street home.
Chief Justice Daniel Wathen’s ruling Nov. 24 rejecting Emerson’s appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court effectively knocked down the last legal barrier to razing the house. City officials need only to decide whether it will be handled by their public works department or a private contractor. Either way, the demolition is expected to occur before the end of the month.
The city may also consider granting some form of compensation to Abbott. Elmer said Abbott plans to address the council this month and ask for the return of her land. The code enforcement officer said such a move would be an entirely altruistic act on the part of the city.
“There’s no way Elva would ever be able to pay our attorney’s fees and demolition fees,” Elmer said.
The demolition fees have yet to be determined. City Solicitor Joel Dearborn said the eviction kept him in court more than any other case he performed for the city last year. However, Dearborn, who charges the city $85 an hour, added that he had not separated his hours on the eviction case from the time he spent on other municipal duties.
“One of the problems” he said, “is that when we first started, we didn’t have any real understanding of how much time would be involved in the doggone thing.”