Bowitch Assists County in Obtaining Brownfield Funding and Brownfield Investigation

Article published in northcountrynow.com on May 8, 0016  (website link or PDF)

EPA, county working to get contaminated properties in Potsdam, Lisbon and Gouverneur back on tax rolls

By JIMMY LAWTON

CANTON -- St. Lawrence County is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring possibly contaminated tax-delinquent properties back on the tax rolls while minimizing the potentially costly risk associated with taking ownership.

Sites being investigated and eyed for foreclosure include the abandoned former Stan Smith automotive junkyard and body shop on US Hwy. 11 in Potsdam, the former Tru-North Pizza in Lisbon and the former DJ Walters Chevrolet-Geo Inc. property in Gouverneur.

The properties are former businesses in prime locations with strong development potential, but that doesn’t always mean foreclosing on the property is the responsible thing to do, according to St. Lawrence County Attorney Stephen Button.

He said the county must be selective when reclaiming delinquent tax properties, because taking ownership of contaminated land can be a costly endeavor. Unfortunately, investigating the properties for contamination can also cost substantial amounts of money.

To help offset those costs St. Lawrence County has reached out the EPA with great success.

While the county can assume costs of smaller investigations like those performed at Tru-North Pizza and DJ Walters, more in-depth investigations like the Stan Smith property can cost more than $100,000.

For these types of investigations, the county seeks grants, but the competitive nature of the grants can make them difficult to secure.

That’s where people like Heidi Ames, who works as grant director in the planning department, come in. She works closely with Bowitch & Coffey LLC, who assists the county in obtaining grants. Ames says the county is always searching for outside funding to investigate properties before bringing them back on the tax roll, because the liability associated with contaminated properties can be high.

“Obviously we don’t want to go untitled if we find out there is a million dollar cleanup ahead of us,” she said. “That’s why we are constantly scouring for grants.”

Ames said a positive side effect of the investigations is that it encourages some businesses who are tax delinquent to pay the back taxes. Ames says the main goal is to get these properties back on the rolls by any means necessary.

“The problem is that on a lot of these sites, the taxes go back quite a ways. We are really focusing on trying to get them back on the tax rolls. It brings in more money for the county and it helps the towns, village and schools. We work toward this on a daily basis,” she said.

Some of the most recent work underway by the county follows.

Stan Smith

Two adjacent properties on the north side of Route 11 between Canton Potsdam house an abandoned former automotive repair, body shop and junkyard. The properties include a 10.9-acre parcel and a 68- by 184-foot parcel with $142,261 and $14,244 in back taxes owed, respectively.

Button said the Stan Smith properties are the most involved of the current sites slated for potential foreclosure, with an investigation of the parcels estimated at more than $141,546.

In 2014, the county applied for an EPA grant for a full site investigation, but was denied due to stiff competition.

However, the EPA later determined that the site qualified for a Targeted Brownfield Assessment. The EPA has since completed a site reconnaissance on both of the parcels.

Now CDM Smith Association will perform an investigation at no cost to the county. Work there should begin within the next month. The report should be completed in September, according to Button. Work will include a GPR survey, soil borings and

Tru-North Pizza

The property owned by Scott McKeever, on State Highway 68 in Lisbon, is a former gas station, pizza shop and convenience store. About $16,000 in back taxes is owned on the property.

A $12,170 investigation wrapped up recently with the final report issued April 8. Although the county assumed the cost, it has the right to seek reimbursement from the current owner through judicial order.

The work included a review of historical documents, interior and exterior inspections of dispensers, above-ground/underground storage tanks, floor drains, sumps, drywells and lifts for potential contamination. It also included soil borings, collection of soil and groundwater samples.

Button said based on the report the board of legislators agreed to take ownership of the property and voted to begin foreclosing procedures. He said the report showed that there is no significant contamination on the site.

Although the process is still underway, Button anticipates the property could be acquired by June or July and booked for auction in August or September.

DJ Walters

A 1.2-acre parcel property owned by DJ Walters Chevorlet –Geo In., at the intersection of West Main Street and Wall Street in Gouverneur, used to serve as a car dealership. Nearly $70,000 is owed in back property taxes.

A $14,640 investigation recently wrapped up there as well, but the county has not yet received the final report. Although the county assumed the cost, it has the right to seek reimbursement from the current owner through judicial order.

The work included a review of historical documents, interior and exterior inspections of dispensers, above-ground/underground storage tanks, floor drains, sumps, drywells and lifts for potential contamination. It also included soil borings, collection of soil and groundwater samples.

It also included a Ground Penetration Radar assessment to confirm locations of possible underground storage tanks. Button says GPR is a non-destructive, non-intrusive geophysical exploration technique that uses a 400 MHZ antenna to provide an instant graphic printout during the survey.

Button said the final report on the site should be available soon. If contamination levels are deemed acceptable this property could also appear for auction in the fall.


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