Salisbury family offers to finance central office, county commissioner says contamination will stop project

SALISBURY — A prominent Salisbury family has offered to fund the $7.3 million downtown school central office, but a Rowan County commissioner says the proposal won’t pass.

Mayor Paul Woodson on Monday confirmed that the unnamed family has made the offer. Family members have been meeting with attorneys for the city and Rowan-Salisbury School System to discuss their proposal, Woodson said.

School board Chairman Dr. Richard Miller acknowledged that the family and possibly others have offered to be the “financier” for the stalled downtown central office project.

“This is not a gift,” Miller said.

In the latest twist in the central office saga, local investors would construct and own the three-story building at 329 S. Main St., and the school system would lease the facility over 15 to 20 years, eventually purchasing it. Additional details were not available.

“This is all contingent on the approval of the county commission,” Miller said.

A majority of commissioners voted not to fund the downtown central office earlier this year and turned down a similar lease-purchase proposal in 2011 from a Charlotte developer. Miller said he’s not sure they will change their minds.

“Every time we think we’ve crossed the final hurdle, there’s another torpedo,” Miller said. “I’m ecstatic that there are private individuals who want to do that, but I’m not optimistic about the county commission approving a lease-purchase agreement.”

Pierce sees risk

A proposal to fund the downtown school central office with private money would be dead on arrival, according to Rowan County commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce.

Pierce said a majority of his fellow commissioners will not approve any development at 329 S. Main St. because the site does not have a No Further Action letter from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

City officials said the letter is not necessary, and commissioners are using it as an excuse to block development.

“N.C. DENR has given the site the green light for development,” Architect Bill Burgin wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to City Manager Doug Paris. “There has been some confusion in the community about whether development can occur now or must wait until there is a letter of no further action. Development can occur now.”

The proposed site of the school central office is a former service station. Although the state gave the nod for development in April after overseeing a massive cleanup, Pierce said without a No Further Action letter, commissioners will not approve the lease-purchase agreement expected to be proposed.

Pierce said he has met with the Salisbury family to share his concerns.

“I don’t think it will pass the board of commissioners because it’s still on a contaminated piece of property,” Pierce said.

Under the proposal, “ultimately, the county will have to take possession of the property,” he said. “I don’t want to risk putting the taxpayers in jeopardy of having a piece of property that already has monitoring wells for the contamination that’s there.”

‘Applaud the family’

Pierce said no one can say whether remaining groundwater contamination will go away or get worse, costing more taxpayer dollars for another cleanup.

“I really do applaud the family for trying to step up and trying to take care of this situation,” Pierce said. “It means a lot to have citizens in the county that care enough that they will put up their personal finances to try to end a long-term situation that needs an answer.”

But the answer for the central office is not 329 S. Main, Pierce said.

Building on the site would cause groundwater contamination to come to the surface, he said.

“Once that contamination reaches the air, it turns into vapor, and the vapor is the concern,” Pierce said.

Pierce said he is familiar with the science involved with the contamination. Initially, he said he and fellow commissioners investigated the site by calling officials with N.C. DENR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Later, Pierce said county staff and a consulting firm hired by the county made the calls, and commissioners’ concerns are based on that information.

Pierce said he hasn’t spoken to the consultant — Golder Associates in Greensboro — for months, and the county no longer has the firm under contract to investigate 329 S. Main St. In April, Pierce told the Post commissioners had taken the central office off their plate after the city offered to take over the project.

County consultant

On Aug. 5, Golder sent a report to Rowan County risk manager Kathryn Jolly, which she forwarded to County Manager Gary Page and commission Chairman Jim Sides.

The report by a Golder geologist outlined several concerns with 329 S. Main, including potential vapors from the ground entering the central office building, as well as settling of the three-story structure into clean dirt brought in to replace contaminated soil.

Earlier this year, the city removed thousands of tons of contaminated soil and seven underground fuel storage tanks during a $490,000 cleanup paid for mostly by the state. The state continues to monitor groundwater contamination at the site and has two monitoring wells in place.

Dan Graham, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, notified the city in April that the state “has no objections to any development of the referenced site.”

Graham, the state’s project manager for the cleanup, said development can proceed while pumping continues.

“However, every effort should be taken to maintain the integrity of the existing monitoring wells on site until such time that the site is eligible for no further action,” Graham wrote to City Manager Doug Paris.

Pierce said Graham works in Mooresville, not Raleigh, and has no authority over issuing a No Further Action letter for the property. While Graham oversaw the cleanup, he’s not involved with monitoring the wells, Pierce said.

Pierce said the county would be “rolling the dice” by allowing the central office at 329 S. Main St. He said commissioners were told the property should be paved.

“If you pave over the contamination, you don’t have any issues there,” he said. “What they said was not to dig into the soil.”

A spokeswoman for N.C. DENR was not familiar with a suggestion to pave the property and said she would look into concerns expressed by Pierce and the county’s consultant.

City response

City officials said Pierce’s claims and the consultant’s report are not accurate.

“We feel that all the concerns presented in the county’s memo have been addressed and that the county’s own geologist confirms that groundwater contamination alone is not a concern for the proposed site usage,” city spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann said in an email. “There is no scientific reason why a school central office cannot be built on this site, only political ones.”

Paris said soil at the site was remediated to below residential cleanup standards, which are more stringent. He said groundwater samples were analyzed as dictated by the state, and remediation was performed at the two monitoring wells at an early phase during the investigation because of the pressing project timeline.

Paris said the state did not require a Comprehensive Site Assessment, which the county’s consultant said she could not find, because the site was determined to be low-risk for potential receptors and because the soil was remediated to below residential cleanup standards.

The county’s consultant acknowledged that the state repeatedly agreed with the city’s approach to monitoring the site and that concentrations of certain contaminants were decreasing. The consultant also said groundwater contamination alone is not a concern for the proposed central office.

But the geologist listed other concerns that she said are associated with groundwater contamination, like the need for a vapor barrier costing $75,000 to $125,000.

Burgin, the architect, answered those concerns in his letter to Paris.

Burgin said the site was backfilled to standards that allow for a several-story building, and the construction plans include a particular type of foundation resting on geopiers, which improves bearing capacity and resolves settlement issues.

Burgin said the construction bid includes a vapor barrier, “which is typical for most downtown sites.”

He said the No Further Action letter pertains only to when the city can close the monitoring well and is not related to site development. Construction of the building will not disturb the well, Burgin said.

“As the architect for this project, there are no environmental or site stability concerns as it relates to this site, and the property is ready to be developed,” he said.

Woodson said he is still optimistic that commissioners will approve the lease-purchase agreement so the central office can move forward. Because it would be private property, the building would generate tax revenue for the county, he said.

Woodson said he’s heard more support for the downtown central office than any other issue during his 16 years on City Council.

“I’m very, very encouraged about all the people who absolutely are just so positive about it,” he said. “Many of them live in the county, and they support this fully.”

At least one county commissioner supports the downtown central office. Jon Barber, who spoke in favor of the project during a public hearing at City Hall, said if a majority of the board of commissioners “reject the philanthropy of $7.3 million, then that same $7.3 million should be spent in electing a new majority board of commissioners next year.”

“To reject the philanthropy of a family of Rowan County toward the revitalization and economic development of downtown Salisbury will separate the men from the boys,” Barber said.

Pierce said he wants to see a school central office, but the downtown location is not acceptable.

“Until I can see there is not a consequence to the taxpayers, I cannot move forward with this piece of property,” Pierce said.

The city took over the central office project after county commissioners declined to borrow money for the downtown location. The school board, which chose 329 S. Main St., can’t borrow money.

No city in North Carolina can borrow money without the state’s blessing. The city recently pulled its loan application, citing interference by the county. County officials denied the accusation.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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