Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council approves $75,000 to secure Amerbelle Mille

By John Kennedy
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:10 PM EDT

VERNON — The Town Council on Tuesday unanimously approved Mayor George F. Apel’s request for $75,000 to secure and winterize the Amerbelle Mill complex for the public’s safety.

“The most significant danger with an abandoned mill is that of a fire caused by trespassers,” Apel said of the 250,000-square-foot complex, which has been empty since Amerbelle Textiles LLC closed in August and the remaining tenant, Challenge Sailcloth, recently moved out. “We have to do something to secure this building over the winter and keep it as safe as possible.”

Fire Marshal Ray Walker said that even though the 14 buildings, some of which date to the 1860s, are bound by streets, many were built close to one another, which makes some areas impossible to reach with fire and emergency equipment.

Additionally, he said that one side of the complex at 104 E. Main St. is bordered by a pond, which cuts off access entirely.

Fire Chief William Call said a sizable fire could cause the already unstable building to collapse, meaning that firefighters would need to stay out of the “collapse zone” and attempt to fight the fire. The collapse zone is about 1.5 times the height of the building, Call said.

Call said that radiant heat from a massive blaze could destroy nearby buildings. A much smaller mill fire cost the department a ladder truck, damaged two other trucks, and ignited two neighboring buildings from heat alone.

“If there’s a large fire there, my guys are not going in,” Call said, referencing the Worcester factory fire in 1999 that killed six firefighters. “A fire there would be catastrophic.”

Apel also said that danger to the public is increased “tenfold” by the mill’s location on the Hockanum River, because a collapse could result in portions of the complex falling into the river and pond, which could have an immediate and negative impact on the flow of the river.

“A building like that, because it’s stone and brick on the outside, is going to burn on the inside and it’s going to collapse,” Apel said.

Democratic council member Marie A. Herbst voiced concern that if the mill were to burn, toxic chemicals would be released into the air and water supply.

According to Walker, his office is working with the current tenants to make sure that any chemicals are removed and disposed of and that the building complies with the state’s fire safety code.

The town foreclosed on the property in 2004 due to back taxes, Apel said, and the deed to the property was transferred to the town. The town then turned over the title and management of the buildings to the Hockanum Industrial Development Venture Corp., a local nonprofit.

Town Attorney Harold Cummings said the group plans to deed the property back to the town and go out of business.

However, even though the town does not own the property, it still may be held liable for an incident like the Somers mill fire, which was started by a cigarette, or a flood caused by a building collapsing into the river.

“Once the town has been notified of a condition, it could be faulted for not taking steps to fix it,” Cummings said, adding that when the town does own the property, it will be able to apply for grants.

Apel said the town would spend the $75,000 securing the building, draining all of the domestic water from the pipes to prevent wintertime bursts, and managing the sprinkler system to keep it operational at or below freezing temperatures.

To complete these three steps, Apel said suggestions from Walker and Call, along with Police Chief James Kenney and Emergency Management Director Michael Purcaro will be considered.

Cummings said the exact security measures could not be disclosed, but Apel said some of the sprinklers likely would be filled with a mixture of anti-freeze and water to keep them usable during the winter months.

According to Walker, this is a recognized strategy, and while it may be employed in some buildings, it may not be employed in all of them.

Because this is a temporary fix, Apel said, he might approach the council with a request for money to demolish the buildings. However, he said Economic Development Coordinator Shaun Gately still is looking into other options for using of the buildings, though nothing has come of the search.

“There are no immediate, realistic re-use plans for this facility, especially not without a seven-figure investment by the town,” Apel said. “The best and, perhaps only, way to protect the citizenry, is to demolish these buildings.”

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