Rennie Farm reimbursement program launches

by Alex Fredman | 2/17/17 2:15am

On Feb. 6, the College announced a new “Value Assurance Program” to assist Hanover residents whose property values may be affected by contamination from Rennie Farm. During the 1960s and 70s, the College had a permit to dispose of animal carcasses used for medical research on that property.

The program was created as part of a larger effort by the College to address the spread of the chemical 1,4-dioxane from Rennie Farm. Under the program, eligible residents who wish to sell their property will be reimbursed by the College if the property is sold below a determined fair market value. If there is no offer after 180 days, the College will purchase the property, said Ellen Arnold, associate general counsel for campus services and director of real estate. Forty-eight properties are eligible for the voluntary program, which will run until February 2022.

“We’re excited about the program,” Arnold said. “Not only will it be beneficial for property owners, but we think it will help the [housing] market in general in that area.”

A real estate agent will assist participating owners in selling their property, Arnold said. In addition, an appraiser approved by the College will determine the property’s fair market value.

If an offer is made for the property less than 180 days after its listing, the owner must inform the College. Arnold said that within five days of the offer, the College can exercise the right of first refusal, meaning it can opt to purchase the property if an offer is made by an outside buyer. Owners agree to this provision when they sign the release form required for entering the program, according to a program booklet released by the College.

“If the College decides [it doesn’t] want to buy the property, then the owner is free to sell to the person who made the original offer,” Arnold said.

She added that if the College exercises its option to buy the property, it will pay the owner the same amount offered by the outside buyer.

For residents who sell their property at less than 95 percent of the fair market value, the College will reimburse the difference between the market value and the sale price, according to the program booklet. For residents who sell their property at between 95 and 100 percent of the fair market value, the College will reimburse the difference and provide compensation for the real estate commission.

If the owner disagrees with the fair market value determined by the appraiser, he or she can challenge the value by receiving a second appraisal, said Tom Csatari, an attorney from Downs Rachlin Martin, the law firm facilitating the program.

“The goal is both to provide some liquidity [and] to provide some assurances to folks who are there, that they don’t need to worry about losing any of the value of their properties,” Csatari said.

In 2015, 1,4-dioxane was detected in the private well of the Higgins family, whose property is located near Rennie Farm. While the College has provided the Higgins with bottled water since the discovery, the family, claiming negligence in the cleanup effort, is finalizing preparations to bring a federal lawsuit against the College, according to the Valley News.

Classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” 1,4-dioxane is used as a purifying agent in pharmaceutical production. Exposure to the chemical may lead to short-term health effects such as headaches, nausea, dizziness and eye irritation. Long-term effects can include increased risks of liver cancer and other liver-related illnesses.

Although the College claimed responsibility for polluting the Higgins’ well, it has denied culpability for polluting a second private well, which belongs to Geisel School of Medicine professors Ivan Gorlov and Olga Gorlova. Last October, a College-contracted geology firm notified them of the presence of 1,4-dioxane in their well.

The College said that the source of the pollution in the Gorlovs’ well is the family’s septic tank, not groundwater contamination from Rennie Farm. For this reason, the Gorlov property is not listed as eligible under the value assurance program, Arnold said. The Gorlovs, however, disagree with the College’s conclusions.

“The evidence [the College] provided that our well was contaminated by our septic tank are not really convincing,” Ivan Gorlov said.

Gorlov also expressed concerns with the value assurance program, claiming the program offers Dartmouth the opportunity to profit from the situation.

“My major concern is that [the program] clearly [states] that Dartmouth will decide how much your property costs,” Gorlov said. “And the decision will be done by Dartmouth-appointed realtors.”

In an email statement, Gorlov said that the concept of “fair market value” is too vague, allowing Dartmouth to sell property [it purchases] at a higher price. He added that he and his wife would have refused entry into the program even if they were made eligible.

Csatari, however, said that he disagrees with Gorlov’s assessment of the program.

“The goal here is really to be a good neighbor and try to protect the neighbors out there,” he said. “Dartmouth is not interested in purchasing and owning the properties out there. But the College feels this is the right thing to do.”

Csatari added that the College’s ability to exercise the right of first refusal on the properties with outside offers is meant to protect owners from potential low-ball bids.

“It’s absolutely not the case that the College is trying to make money,” Csatari said.