College purchases property contaminated by Rennie Farm

by Alex Fredman | 4/27/17 2:05am

Over 18 months after contamination from Rennie Farm was discovered on the nearby property of Richard and Deb Higgins, the College has reached a settlement with the couple, who had threatened to bring a federal lawsuit against the school in October 2016. Rennie Farm, a property in northern Hanover, was used as a waste disposal site by the College in the 1960s and 1970s to dispose of animal carcasses amassed during medical research.

Under the terms of the settlement, which was completed on April 5, the College will purchase the Higginses’ property, provide a compensatory payment for emotional impacts to the family and set up a trust fund to cover future medical expenses incurred by the Higginses, according to Ellen Arnold, associate general counsel for campus services and director of real estate.

Neither Arnold nor Geoffrey Vitt, the family’s attorney, would specify the amount of money the College agreed to pay the Higginses. According to the Valley News, the Higginses’ property at 9 Rennie Road was assessed in 2015 at a value of $282,000.

Had a settlement not been reached, the family was prepared to file suit against the College in federal court, Vitt said. He added, however, that lawsuits are expensive, time-consuming and emotionally taxing for the participants, who, in the case of the Higginses, have been through a lot already.

“For most people, spending 15, 18, 20 months in court is not a lot of fun — and then there could have been an appeal,” Vitt said. “Basically [the Higginses] would still be sitting in that house. That’s not a good situation.”

In 2015, 1,4-dioxane, a chemical used as a purifying agent in the production of pharmaceuticals, was detected in the Higginses’ water well. The chemical is labeled as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure can lead to health effects such as dizziness, eye irritation, headaches and increased risk of liver cancer. The Higginses suffered from dizziness, skin peeling in their mouths and sores, according to the Valley News.

According to the Valley News, state officials are considering placing stricter rules on New Hampshire’s specification of the amount of 1,4-dioxane permissible for safe drinking water. The EPA has recently strengthened its regulation of the chemical as well.

Since 1,4-dioxane was initially discovered on the Higginses’ property in September 2015, the College has provided the family with bottled water and a new water filtration system. But Vitt said that family still was not satisfied and did not drink the new water even with the filter.

“Trying to live on bottled water is not a great situation,” Vitt said. “If you think about how often you use water, every time you turn around … you expect the water to be clean. You don’t expect a carcinogen to be in your drink.”

The College initially tried to mediate with the family in May 2016, but the negotiations soon broke down.

“It didn’t go well,” Vitt said. “It just got nowhere. It was one of those mediations where it was clear that the parties were far, far apart.”

Vitt insisted that the family’s position has not changed between then and now, and that the College had made significant modifications to their position for the agreement this month.

When asked what changed between the failed mediation last May and the recent settlement, Arnold said, “If I could answer that question, I would be in a different position than the position I’m in.”

She noted that there are usually a variety of circumstances that lead parties in a potential lawsuit to reach a settlement.

“Sometimes it just takes time, and sometimes a better understanding of factual situations or circumstances,” Arnold said. “It’s more an art than a science.”

Nonetheless, Arnold said that the College was prepared to challenge the lawsuit in court, and that she felt they had a strong position in the case.

The College had sent a 36-page letter of reply to the Higginses’ legal counsel earlier this year in response to their threat to sue, Vitt said. The letter argued that the family’s position was not meritorious and would not stand in court.

The settlement comes roughly two months after the College started its Value Assurance Program, which was created to compensate residents affected by potential changes in property value since the spread of contamination from Rennie Farm.

Under the program, the College identified 48 eligible properties near Rennie Farm whose owners can voluntarily request the assistance of College-approved assessors and realtors in selling their properties. The College can exercise a right of first refusal to purchase any property in the program, which will last until 2022.

Tom Csatari, an attorney from the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin and a facilitator of the VAP, said that the College is close to purchasing four different properties in the area. He said it is too soon to say whether the College will continue to purchase additional land through the program or if independent buyers will enter the market.

“The goal of the program really is to … help the market, so that there will be people who will come in and offer prices that are at the fair market value,” Csatari said.

Csatari said it is also too soon to say whether property values in the area have been affected by the VAP, but he thinks the College’s clean-up efforts at Rennie Farm will have a beneficial impact. He added that the reaction among residents to the program was positive.

“One of the goals here was to come up with a program that was going to be fair,” Csatari said. “So I’m pleased with the reaction so far from the property owners.”

For the Higgins family, meanwhile, challenges remain even after the settlement. While they want to remain in the area, Vitt said, the couple must purchase or build a house that is handicap accessible, because Deb Higgins requires a wheelchair.

Either way, Vitt said, the Higginses are ready to move on as soon as possible.

“As quickly as they can reasonably move, I think they want to be out of there,” Vitt said. “I think there’s enormous relief that they’re in a position to do that.”