College buys five properties near Rennie Farm

by Alex Fredman | 9/22/17 2:10am

After taking action earlier this year to stabilize the housing market around Rennie Farm, the College has purchased five properties in the area, totaling 98 acres and $3.4 million in value. Rennie Farm is a property in northern Hanover that the College used in the 1960s and 1970s to dispose animal carcasses accumulated from medical research, which contaminated groundwater surrounding the property.

Under a Value Assurance Program, which the College created last February, Dartmouth established a zone covering 48 properties near Rennie Farm in which owners can opt to use College-appointed realtors to sell their property at a determined fair market value. For owners who participate in the program, the College will purchase their property at market value if no outside offer is made after 180 days.

“The program was adopted so that it would help stabilize property values and would provide liquidity for property owners, so that they knew they had a buyer for their properties as we go through the remediation of the [Rennie Farm] site,” said Ellen Arnold, associate general counsel for campus services and director of real estate.

In 2015, the chemical 1,4-dioxane — a purifying agent used in the production of pharmaceuticals — was discovered in the drinking well of the neighboring Higgins family, and a subsequent investigation determined that the pollutant originated from Rennie Farm. The chemical has been labeled as “likely to be carcinogenic” by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure can lead to health effects such as headaches, dizziness and eye irritation.

With the Higginses threatening to sue in federal court, the College reached a settlement with the family in April in which, among other provisions, the College agreed to purchase the Higgins property. Arnold said that the College purchased four other properties under the normal procedures of the VAP, with the fifth property expected to close this Friday.

The VAP, which will last until 2022, has additional provisions, allowing Dartmouth to exercise a right of first refusal, whereby it can purchase any property in the program before it is sold to a third party, as well as a requirement for the College to provide adequate compensation if any property is sold to a third party below the determined fair market value. Arnold said that while the College has not done either of these to date, she expects more owners in the area will eventually sell.

“I don’t think we ever expected there would be a huge rush of people getting rid of their property, but I assume over five years there will be more,” Arnold said. She added that most people eligible for the VAP like where they live and do not have plans to move, so the VAP serves to reassure those owners if their personal or financial plans change in the future.

Regardless of future purchases, the College intends to sell the properties they have purchased as soon as this coming spring, when the market is settled, Arnold said.

“We certainly would hope to be selling [the property], and we don’t have any anticipated use for property out there,” Arnold said. She declined to comment on whether she thinks the College could turn a profit from the sale of those properties.

Both Arnold and Tom Csatari, a lawyer with the Lebanon firm Downs Rachlin Martin and the administrator of the VAP, said that it is too soon to tell how the property purchases have affected the market in the area. Yet, Csatari noted the program has produced constructive results.

“The people who benefited from the program are appreciative and positive,” Csatari said. “I think the good news right now is that things seemed to have settled down, and there’s not a demand for action at this point.”

Csatari said that regarding the five properties purchased by the College, two of the owners sold so they could move closer to town, while the other three were retiring and thus looking to cash in on their assets. He added that feedback for the program has been mainly positive, and that the market has settled over time.

The purchase of the fifth property under the VAP comes as the College has addressed a minor problem related to the cleanup efforts at Rennie Farm. In August, routine tests of effluent, discharged waste or liquid, from the treatment facility detected small traces of cyanide in the water. The reading of 6 parts per billion, while slightly above the federal permit’s limit of 5.2 ppb, was well below the level New Hampshire’s standard of 200 ppb, according to the Valley News.

After informing the government and shutting down the treatment facility, the problem was isolated to a single treatment pump that had not been operating effectively. Arnold said that the pump was soon fixed, and that the most recent tests showed no traces of cyanide.

James Wieck, a senior project manager with GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc., a contracting firm that is orchestrating the Rennie Farm cleanup, wrote in an email statement that the cyanide limit of 5.2 ppb is conservative, meant to protect both human health and aquatic life. He added that the treatment center was shut down to meet the requirements of an EPA discharge permit.

“Changes to the operation of the system have been made to limit the possibility of a reoccurrence, and we will continue to monitor the water quality,” Wieck wrote.

He added that he could not rule out the possibility of the issue recurring.

Yet in terms of the overall cleaning efforts at Rennie Farm, Wieck wrote that this latest issue did not impede the work in the long run.

“The progress of the cleanup has been generally as expected and is encouraging; while we did shutdown the system one time in response to the cyanide data, the shutdown will have no effect on the progress and we have had no similar issues,” Wieck wrote.

Wieck added that while feedback among neighbors regarding the cyanide detection has been limited, their attitude toward the overall cleaning efforts has been generally favorable. Arnold said that reception to the VAP has been positive as well.

“We haven’t had any issues, and people seem to be pleased,” Arnold said. “And I think we feel like we’re doing the right thing and helping that neighborhood.”