Westbrook May Reach Resolution on Former Auto Wrecker Site
In a surprise development on an issue that has plagued Westbrook for nearly three decades, the owner of a contaminated site has made an offer to pay a portion of back taxes to the town and the Board of Selectmen (BOS) has accepted. The matter will now be put to a public vote at a Town Meeting on Monday, March 11.
The property, located at 88 Pond Meadow Road, is a five-plus acre industrial lot formerly used for an auto-wreckage business, Turnpike Auto Wreckers. An aging building used for that business still stands, clearly visible from the road. Also visible from the road is debris strewn across the site.
The site has a lengthy history of environmental issues that have prevented owners from redeveloping the site and that have also dissuaded the town from taking ownership. At one point town officials estimated clean up costs might approach or exceed $1 million.
To date, $134,918 is owed in back taxes on the parcel, according to Westbrook Tax Collector Kimberly Schatz. The owner, 88 Pond Meadow, LLC, of which Paul Cusson is the principal, has offered the town $65,161.53, the amount that is owed in taxes, interest, and lien fees since 2005 or 2006, when Cusson acquired the property. The remaining amount, $69,756.47, was owed to the town by the previous owners. That debt, as well as liability for the contamination of the site, transferred to Cusson’s company along with the property.
Schatz said she was unsure of how Cusson was able to acquire the property in the first place, as there was a lien placed on it for back taxes.
“We purchased the loan on the property—the mortgage,” Cusson said. “It’s no different than a bank foreclosing on a house. That’s how we got it. From my understanding, it’s a pretty standard procedure.”
In response to the town’s uncertainty as to how that transfer took place, Cusson said, “It’s a long time ago, so I wouldn’t expect them to probably remember.”
If the town accepts the payment Cusson is offering, it could allow him to proceed with new development plans, but that acceptance by the town of the tax payment alone would not authorize his company to develop the property, said Westbrook First Selectman Noel Bishop.
“We can accept the money, but like any person, he has to go in front of the Zoning Commission to get a permit,” Bishop said.
“The risk is totally [Cusson’s] in terms of if he wants to develop it commercially—if zoning approves that—plus the responsibility for cleaning it up,” he said. “That’s his responsibility. And he’s very much aware of that, and I can confirm that because I’ve been with him and his attorney and our attorney.”
Cusson acknowledged that he wants to move forward with development of the property, but doesn’t yet have a specific project in mind.
“I don’t have a solid plan,” he said. “We have a couple of different concepts. Obviously, we’ll work with planning and development and associated departments of the town—something that’s acceptable to everybody. Obviously, I’ll turn it into a useful piece of property for the town.”
A Dumping Ground
Problems with the property extend at least to the early 1990s, when the previous owners, Paul and Donna Hotkowski, the proprietors of Turnpike Auto Wreckers, closed their business, abandoned the property, and left tires and other debris behind.
According to an April 2000 article in The Hartford Courant, the state determined in the early ‘90s that site contamination had leached into neighbors’ well water. The property is located in a residential zone. The state ordered Paul Hotkowski to clean up the property, but he filed for bankruptcy. With the help of then-state senator Eileen M. Daily and the State Bonding Commission, in 1995 the town extended water lines to the neighboring houses, after years of residents relying on bottled water.
More recently, in 2010, what was then the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) funded the first two phases of an evaluation of the site to determine the levels and locations of contamination. With roughly $213,000 then owed in back taxes, the town was eager to determine if it should foreclose on the property, which would make the town liable for clean-up and all the associated costs.
Cusson Investment Properties funded Phase 3 of the study, which involved digging and testing soil and water in what were determined to be areas of concern. Cusson then declined to share the results of the study with the town.
Neighbors reported at a BOS meeting that fall that the site continued to serve as a dumping ground, and that they had observed trucks emptying river sludge onto the property.
In 2013, the non-profit HOPE Partnership, which works to create affordable housing, expressed interest in acquiring the adjoining 1.26-acre lot at 17 Willard Avenue, also owned by Cusson. Cusson then decided to share the results with the town of the Phase 3 study paid for by his company in 2010.
The BOS authorized $5,900 for a review of the Phase 3 study by its engineering consultant Woodard and Curran. After review, the firm requested further funds to conduct an additional field study to sample, test, and analyze solid waste and soil on the site in order to more accurately assess the level of contamination and the cost of clean-up. The BOS agreed, as did Cusson, and a further $27,000 was approved at a town meeting.
As a result of that study, remediation costs were determined to be lower than the initial estimates from a decade before. Those early estimates were between $1.5 million and $3 million; Woodard and Curran’s analysis determined the cost to lie within a range of $560,000 and $850,000, with residential or public-park uses at the higher end and industrial or commercial uses at the lower end.
The firm also found that much debris remained on the property: It counted more than 2,000 tires on both lots, and estimated that between 633 and 949 tons of solid waste and between 813 to 1,220 tons of contaminated soil would need to be removed from the site.
In February 2016, the town was awarded a $200,000 Brownfields Assessment grant to hire a licensed environmental professional (LEP) to prepare and file with the state a completion of investigation report and remedial action plan. The town chose a proposal from the firm Woodard and Curran, and the firm named LEP Dan Wolfram to manage the project. That work has been ongoing ever since.
The driving force for the continuing study of the property has been the question of whether foreclosure was a viable option for the town.
“Of course we could take it over tomorrow because of the back taxes, but then what does the town do with it?” explained Bishop. “If we wanted to use it for residential purposes and had to spend a million dollars to clean it up, it has no value to us. And we have not been able to interest developers in the past several years because of those costs of the cleanup.”
“I’ve been here 20 years,” Schatz said. “There was no way for me to ever foreclose for back taxes because the contamination was so expensive to clean up, it would have been a huge burden for the town.”
The estimates for clean-up when Schatz started as tax collector were $1.5 million to $3 million.
“Nobody was going to bid on [the property],” she continued. “Nobody was going to show up at an auction for a contaminated piece of property that was going to be three times the cost to clean up than it was worth.”
Bishop is hopeful that residents will attend the meeting, ask questions, and vote on the proposal.
“This is a public domain issue in this town and I think having the public there, the more the better,” he said. “That’s the way we run our business as a town, is a town meeting.”
The Public Meeting will take place on Monday, March 11, at 7 p.m. in the Multi-Media Room at Westbrook Town Hall.