By Zendelle Bouchard
At its meeting October 3, 2023, the Sanford City Council voted unanimously to begin the process to take the International Woolen Company Boiler House and adjacent blighted land by eminent domain. Once the legal process is complete, the Boiler House will be demolished, the most contaminated soil will be excavated and the site will be capped with a public parking lot.
The structural integrity of the retaining wall along Pioneer Avenue is a major concern. Once the building has been removed, restabilization of the road will be a significant part of the project cost.
The parcels the City plans to take include J29-25 and most of J29-24 (see yellow outlined areas in map below). The pump house on the other side of Heritage Crossing is also part of J29-24, but it will not be taken. The City will also not take the loading dock and the fenced basement well that surrounds the Boiler House, or the massive IWC mill building next door. The Boiler House historically served as the heating plant for the mill.
The properties are owned by Regco, Inc. of Miami, Fla. The City had expected to take the parcels under tax foreclosure this past February, but Regco’s owner, Mario Frati, paid off the tax liens in time to avoid foreclosure.
Ian Houseal, Sanford’s Director of Community Development, recapped the legal methods the City has used to address these blighted properties. In January 2022, the Council found the Boiler House to be a Dangerous Building under state law and in May 2022 ordered enforcement action. The City received a default judgement against Regco from the court in July 2022. Last November, voters authorized a $1 million bond to demolish the smoke stack that was in danger of collapsing onto Pioneer Avenue, and the work was completed this past spring.
Planning and Codes Director Jamie Cole said “the property has been in deplorable condition for decades.” He said the buildings are full of known hazardous materials, which are a danger to unhoused people who seek shelter there, and the owner has not taken the necessary steps to secure the property. The eminent domain process is not to be taken lightly, he said, “but this property is a prime candidate for it…we have exhausted all other options.”
Contaminants in the property include asbestos, lead paint and PCB in the buildings and oil and metals in the soil. The City plans to apply to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a brownfield grant for the cleanup. Houseal said the City must own the property in order to qualify for the grant. For the first time, grants of up to $5 million are available this year for projects like this one.
While normally a property owner would be compensated when their property is taken by eminent domain, that will not be the case here, as the value of the parcels is less than zero due to liens and the special assessment for the smoke stack demolition. The properties being taken have an assessed value of $141,620. The cost of the remediation is estimated to be over $4.6 million.
Charlie Springer of TRC Environmental, the company that conducted the environmental assessment, said the EPA and Department of Environmental Protection are very supportive of the project, and have assisted with strategy to get to this point. With the $5 million grant, he said, the City can finally take the building down, make the area safer for the public, and replace it with a parking lot that could stimulate additional redevelopment in the millyard.
The next step in the process will be the commercial appraisal of the properties, scheduled for Tuesday, October 10. Public hearings will be held at the next two Council meetings on October 17 and November 8. The Council will vote on the condemnation and taking by eminent domain November 8. After the City legally has possession of the property, it will be immediately secured. The EPA grant application is due November 13. The City will be notified in the spring if the grant money is awarded.