City pursues grant to test Kesler site for contamination

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 8, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY – For three decades, John Brooker worked at Cannon Mills Plant No. 7, originally Kesler Manufacturing Co., a sprawling textile mill that operated in the heart of Salisbury from 1895 to 2000.
There Brooker did, as he says, “a little bit of everything.”
Now 89, Brooker mostly stays home, watching TV in his recliner or enjoying the fresh air on his Park Avenue front porch. But last year, Brooker walked down the avenue to check out the remains across the street of the old mill where he worked for so many years.
Massive piles of rubble and debris still stand on the site, three years after demolition. People have tossed old mattresses, broken appliances and other trash onto the heaps.
A skinny stray dog wanders in and out of the shredded wood and torn shingles, looking for rats, snakes and other prey neighbors say is plentiful.
“I said ‘My God, look at all this mess piled up,’ ” Brooker said, recalling his reaction to seeing the devastation. “It needs to go.”
The owner, a nonprofit Christian community development organization based in Atlanta, says it can’t afford the $200,000 price tag to clean up the property.
Now, the city is looking for ways to finally rid the neighborhood of the 12-acre blight, including possibly taking ownership of the site.
FCS Urban Ministries, which demolished the mill, was supposed to have removed the eyesore by spring 2010.
Despite repeated warnings and notices of code violations, the city has yet to fine or penalize FCS.
The organization can’t afford to pay, city officials said.
“We take people for their word when they say we don’t have the money to do it,” said Joe Morris, director of Community Planning Services. “Any fines will end up with the overall cost of the property that someone will pick up down the line.”
Typically when a nuisance lingers, the city cleans up the mess and places a lien on the property.
But the Kesler site is anything but typical.
The city can’t just abate the largest nuisance in recent history, like it would mow an overgrown lot, officials say.
“The magnitude of the enforcement action is beyond our capacity,” Morris said. “We don’t have $200,000 in a budget line item to hire someone to clean it up.”
Even if the city could afford the cleanup, placing a $200,000 lien on the site, which has a tax value $312,000, would make the property nearly impossible to sell, the owner warned in an email to a city official.
“An additional lien for cleanup, if imposed by the city, will in all probability make the sale of the property unlikely in the foreseeable future,” Bob Lupton, founder of FCS Urban Ministries, wrote in September 2011 to Chris Branham, manager of code enforcement.
City Council agreed last week to pursue a grant of up to $400,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the property and determine whether it’s contaminated.
If approved, the grant would pay to investigate possible contamination at other Salisbury sites as well – old service stations, former dry cleaners, even the Empire Hotel.
City staffers say the assessment grant is the first step before considering taking over the Kesler mill site.
“At this point, we need to do preliminary due diligence to see what liabilities would be there,” Branham said. “So we don’t get a treasure chest over there of things that are not treasures.”
Dozens of houses are in direct view of the rubble, which can be seen from Park Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Kesler Street and other thoroughfares.
No other neighborhood in Salisbury endures such a site. The closest comparable eyesore is the demolished N.C. Finishing Plant near Interstate 85, Branham said.
Stephanie Nelson’s house backs up to the FCS property. She said people regularly cut through her backyard and jump the fence to elude police.
Snakes slither and rodents crawl from the site into her yard, Nelson said.
“It’s trashy,” she said.
Nelson, who has lived on Park Avenue for two years, said she can’t believe the rubble still remains.
FCS has no plans to clean up or develop the site.
“I wish there were a workable solution to this unfortunate dilemma,” founder Lupton wrote to Branham.
FCS is struggling with the same “financial realities” that other non-profits face – laying off staff, cutting programs and reducing budgets, Lupton said.
“We do not foresee this changing until the economy recovers. Regretfully, we have no money for cleanup of the property,” he wrote. “If the city has any interest in acquiring the property rather than spending money on cleanup, I would be most happy to discuss the matter.”Lupton’s suggestion of selling the property to Salisbury has since become an offer to give it away for free.
It would be the first time that Branham said he knows of the city taking over a site the owner couldn’t afford to clean up.
If an assessment grant shows the land is contaminated, the city likely would pursue more federal money in the form of a remediation grant for cleanup.
Should taxpayers be responsible for the failings of a private property owner?
“That’s a delicate thing for us to sort through,” Morris said.
In thousands of similar examples across the country, taxpayers have stepped in, he said, and Salisbury has always based decisions on serving the public interest.
“We want people who live in that neighborhood to have a healthy neighborhood,” Morris said.
Like the ugly remains of the N.C. Finishing Plant, the Kesler site is a remnant of the collapse of the textile industry and the failures of private developers.
“Local communities are being left to pick up the pieces,” Morris said.
The city doesn’t have a blueprint to navigate the problem.
“Who would have ever thought this would happen?” he said. “We don’t have ordinances that say what to do when the mill closes.”
It’s an issue the city has been wrestling with for some time. Working with the Centralina Council of Governments, Salisbury staffers found the funding they’ve been searching for.
“We have been looking under rocks trying to find the money to pursue assessment,” Morris said.
Keith Pyron of PPM Consultants in Alabama has walked the site with Morris and Branham. Pyron said he thinks the location is a good candidate for an assessment grant to determine if contamination exists, and potentially for a brownfields remediation grant to clean it up, Morris said.
The federal government pays for cities to apply for the grants, so Salisbury has no application cost and no local match.
Pyron will lead the application process, including a public hearing at City Council and probably at least one community workshop where residents can suggest other sites that may be contaminated.
“The idea is to create an inventory of potential sites,” Morris said.
Eventually, the city would work with public developers – such as Downtown Salisbury Inc., the Rowan County Economic Development Commission or the Salisbury Community Development Corporation – to jointly administer remediation grants for properties like Kesler that could be cleaned up and used for economic development, Morris said.
“We would need a developer to purse a brownfields grant,” he said. “We will be looking for prospective partners.”
If Salisbury takes ownership of the Kesler site from FCS, city crews could conduct the cleanup, rather than paying a contractor $200,000, Branham said.
“We could cut that cost pretty substantially if we own the property,” he said.
In 2002, JFS Properties in Atlanta purchased the mill from Fieldcrest-Cannon for $250,000 and then deeded it as a gift to FCS Urban Ministries in January 2007.
Seven months later, someone stole the metal fittings from a fuel tank on the property, resulting in an 8,000-gallon oil leak that ran into Tar Branch Creek.
FCS cleaned up the contamination and paid a $25,000 fine.
In 2009, FCS demolished the mill.
“The primary objective was to harvest timber and brick and other resources of value,” Morris said. “It was basically strip mining of historic resources.”
Despite protests from city officials and historic preservationists, “there was no stopping them,” Morris said.
All that remains now is material with little or no value. Before the city recently installed a new gate and lock, scavengers even pulled what scrap metal they could from the edges of the ruins.
Joel Smithgall of JFS Properties manages the site and could not be reached for comment.
People in the neighborhood have grown accustomed to living with the mounds of rubble.
Complaints to the city have died off, “probably because some people have lost hope,” Branham said.
A couple walking past the site recently said they look at the debris every day from their front porch. They blame the property owner for the mess but said they feel abandoned by the city.”If that was someone’s yard, they would be fining them by now,” said the woman, who didn’t give her name. “I think they leave it because it’s out of the way and they don’t really care.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.