City tackling Spencer’s environmental issues


First Posted: 2/6/2015

Mount Airy officials are hoping to turn “brown” into green, the color of money, through an initiative that will address any environmental problems lurking at the former Spencer’s Inc. industrial property.

A redevelopment commission was formed last year to expenditure new, economically viable uses for the downtown site now owned by the city government.

But certain housekeeping measures must occur before redevelopment blossoms, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners was told during a meeting Thursday afternoon, when it unanimously approved a city application for a brownfields program that deals with such sites.

In a separate 5-0 vote, the board authorized an application for federal grant funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cover a Phase II environmental assessment/cleanup of the Spencer’s property.

These approvals will trigger a process aimed at mitigating any environmental problems at the sprawling complex of 22 buildings — the oldest dating to the 1890s — which could be barriers to its redevelopment.

Though most people associate Spencer’s with the manufacture of infant apparent before it ceased production, the site was used for other purposes over a 120-year span. Auto repairs and a warehouse for fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides were included, according to information from city Community-Development Director Martin Collins.

Though Spencer’s closed in 2007, environmental remnants of its textile and other history have been left behind, Collins said in a presentation during Thursday’s meeting.

And any problems must be dealt with adequately to foster the re-use of the Spencer’s property, he said.

The city obtained EPA funding last year for a Phase I environmental assessment in conjunction with the Piedmont Regional Council, a partnership of local government units of which Mount Airy belongs.

This involved a company, Apex Environmental, inspecting the Spencer’s property to locate any “recognizable environmental conditions,” Collins said, along with researching state records for incidents such as fuel spills there. Two such releases, involving fuel oil and heating oil, were reported in 1993 and 1997.

The Phase I effort also pinpointed the presence of both underground and above-ground storage tanks, which held fuel to run boilers and heat the plant and chemicals used in the textile processes, Collins detailed.

“That’s not unusual,” he said of those items being found at such sites.

The question is, has any notable environmental damage occurred as a result of major fuel leaks or similar events, which the Phase II analysis will determine through soil sampling using drilling or backhoe work as needed.

This process might lead to nothing having to be done, Collins continued, but the successful EPA grant application could provide federal funds for cleanup work. A figure of $30,000 was mentioned Thursday.

Brownfields Program

The Phase I and Phase II environmental assessments will support the second application involved, regarding an effort by the city to enter the North Carolina Brownfields Program.

It addresses the so-called brownfield sites, which the EPA defines as abandoned or underutilized properties where redevelopment is hindered by real or perceived environmental contamination. The main hindrance is that loans are difficult to secure for these properties because they come with potential environmental cleanup liability, according to information supplied by Collins.

The North Carolina Brownfields Program can enter into an agreement with a developer that effectively provides a covenant not to sue as long as the developer makes a site suitable for a proposed re-use. The agreement specifies actions to be taken by the developer to ensure this.

This liability protection is passed on to any new owners provided they adhere to land-use restrictions, which Collins said makes site remedies less costly and time-consuming and limits liability for any future development.

Remedies are put into the agreement up-front, which represent known costs and reduces uncertainty for the developer, who can obtain closure reasonably quickly, the community-development director added.

The $2,000 application fee to become a member of the brownfields property program will be paid by the Piedmont Triad Regional Council on behalf of Mount Airy.

Board Appointments

Also Thursday afternoon, the commissioners appointed or re-appointed members to four different groups that are part of city government.

• Bertie S. George was re-appointed for a five-year term as a commissioner for the Mount Airy housing authority governing board which will end on Feb. 16, 2020. That board oversees public housing facilities in the city.

• Glenda Laster was approved for a new three-year term on the Mount Airy Appearance Commission to expire on Dec. 30, 2017.

• Chad Tidd, Tim Devore and Sharon Gates were re-appointed to the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment, each for four-year terms that will expire on Jan. 1, 2019.

• Steve Welker was appointed to the city library board to replace Gilbert Huffman, who has resigned from that group. Welker will serve the remainder of Huffman’s term, which expires on June 30, 2016.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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