Mark Bowen was leaving a friend’s house Thursday night in Franklin when he smelled smoke outside. He said he heard on a police scanner that there was a building fire on Church Street and went to investigate.
“It was rockin’. There were flames through the roof and windows,” Bowen said of the fire at 31 Church St.
At about 8 p.m., Bowen joined a handful of onlookers outside the multi-story, 19th century home – the place he knew growing up as “Ripley mansion.”
The group had gathered to see if firefighters would rescue two people reported to be inside shortly before the fire started on the structure’s third floor, Bowen said.
Franklin fire Chief Kevin LaChapelle said he determined the two possible victims were squatting and had safely escaped before firefighters arrived.
The Church Street residence was taken by the city after a lapse in tax payments in July, according to town records. The 1880 home was last owned by Laurice Ripley, who died in 2013 at age 96. Ripley was a lifelong resident of Franklin and worked in the city as a bookshop manager and florist.
Town Clerk Katie Gargano said taxes stopped being paid by Ripley’s relatives in 2014.
City officials say they’ve had problems at the former Ripley residence in recent months with squatters, and two individuals were arrested last week on criminal trespassing charges. Those same people were not there Thursday night, LaChapelle said.
Following the latest arrest, the city changed the front-door lock and installed a padlock. They also put up a “no trespassing” sign and boarded up the first-floor windows, City Manager Judie Milner said.
“We didn’t think anybody could get to the top floor because it was so overgrown,” she said, referring to the growth of natural vegetation around the house.
LaChapelle said firefighters found bread and clothes in the house after the fire was extinguished.
“We’re having a problem downtown with squatters,” he said. “They’re in tents, they’re in houses, they’re in barns – vacant properties.”
LaChapelle said city officials made efforts to help squatters find alternative shelter in the past, but he didn’t know how effective that had been.
“I wish there was a real answer,” he said.
The Church Street house suffered significant damage in Thursday’s fire. LaChapelle said it will likely be torn down.
(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)...Read more