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City hopes fee deferral will clean up Kesler Mill

SALISBURY — After four years of living next to huge piles of debris and rubble, the Park Avenue neighborhood may finally be free of the Kesler Manufacturing Co. eyesore.
City Council on Tuesday joined Rowan County in deferring fees and fines, a move that leaders hope will finally prompt the Atlanta-based Christian charity that owns the property to clean up the mess, which has plagued the neighborhood since 2009.
Under the agreement, Rowan County will defer about $144,000 in landfill tipping fees, so disposing of debris from the former textile mill will cost the owner next to nothing. The city will defer about $40,000 in code services fines that have accumulated since 2010, when FCS Urban Ministries was supposed to have had the rubble removed.
Now, the city has to convince Robert Lupton, president of FCS Urban Ministries, to clean up the biggest nuisance in recent city history. Neighbors living near the mounds say they often see rodents and snakes and the 12-acre fenced-in site provides a quick getaway for people running from the police.
Chris Branham, the city’s Code Services Division manager, has been negotiating with Lupton. Branham said Lupton told him a fee and fine waiver would make it possible for him to hire a contractor and go through with the clean up.  
“I do think he will clean it up with this current offer he has since it amounts to about one-third of the original bid amounts to do the cleanup,” Branham said.
Lupton repeatedly has tried to give the property to the city.
“We have said that the debris should be removed by the owner before any transaction of land takes place,” Branham said.
As proposed, the charity would clear the site of debris and all hazardous conditions, then deed the property to the city. The city has not set a deadline for Lupton to act.
With the landfill fees deferred, “we will certainly push to make sure it is not delayed any longer,” Branham said.
The agreement signed by the city and county does not include the property owner and cannot be used to force FCS Urban Ministries to clean up its property. That concerned Councilman Brian Miller.
“Are there any teeth to this document?” he asked.
Not really, said Janet Gapen, the city’s director of Community Planning Services, but the agreement removes a hurdle and should help convince the owner to act. Gapen negotiated with Rowan County commissioners to win the tipping fee deferral.
Commissioners have approved the agreement, adding provisions that landfill fees will be due after 10 years and the county would not assume liability for any environmental risks. If the charity donates the property to the city and the land is not sold or redeveloped within 10 years, the city would be liable for the fees, Gapen said.
Councilwoman Karen Alexander asked if the city could place a lien on the property, so the fees and fines would be recouped when the site is eventually sold.
City Manager Doug Paris said given the owner’s track record, staff does not believe liens would be effective.
The fee deferral “gets us to the front doorstep of a solution,” Paris said.
Miller encouraged city staff to spell out some kind of a commitment from the owner to clean up the property and give it to the city. Once hazards and nuisances are removed, the owner may not be so eager to part with the site, Miller said.
Paris said upcoming environmental documents will give the city more teeth to address those issues. The city plans to sell the property for development sooner than the 10-year deadline set by commissioners, he said.
But if it takes longer than a decade, Paris said he would expect city leaders to ask for an extension from the county. Or, if a developer is interested in the site but needs convincing, he said the city may ask the county to waive the fees to help seal the deal.
Paris acknowledged the agreement is not perfect.
“Nothing has happened there for many years, and the only way anything is going to happen is if we step in and take a risk,” he said.
Miller ultimately agreed, saying improving the Park Avenue neighborhood is more important than an airtight agreement.
Mayor Paul Woodson said he envisions affordable housing and a park where Kesler Mill once stood.
Councilman Pete Kennedy asked about possible funding through the Brownfield Program to help develop the site.
City Council last year voted to pursue a grant of up to $400,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the property and determine whether it is contaminated. 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.
Gapen said the city’s first grant application was turned down, but she plans to tweak the application and resubmit it in December.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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