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Dartmouth Offers to Prop Up Home Sales Near Rennie Farm Pollution

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2017 6:00:52 PM
Modified: 2/7/2017 3:59:18 PM

Hanover — Dartmouth College has created a program to compensate neighbors of Rennie Farm for potential losses in the housing market brought on by pollution from the former dump site for medical waste near Hanover Center.

The “value assurance program,” as school administrators are calling it, will allow people living near the former hillside farm, where Dartmouth’s medical school dumped contaminated lab animal carcasses decades ago, to apply for reimbursement from the college if they are unable to sell their homes, or if they have to mark them down significantly to do so.

College officials said the program was an effort to stabilize the real estate market and calm concerns in the neighborhood about property values, given that some residents have had their property listed for months with barely a nibble.

“It’s important to us that the homeowners have that security,” said Ellen Arnold, Dartmouth’s associate general counsel for campus services and director of real estate.

“We’re just trying to follow through on Rick Mills’ promise to be a good neighbor,” Arnold later added, referring to an informational meeting in September where Mills, Dartmouth’s executive vice president, offered what he said was Dartmouth’s first public apology for the contamination and promised that the school would be a “good neighbor” moving forward.

Residents who received word of the program on Monday also saw it as an attempt to make good on Mills’ pledge, but noted that some concerned landowners had been left out.

The owners of about 48 properties in the area are eligible to participate, according to an informational booklet provided by the college. Those residents include Deb and Richard Higgins, the first people to find chemicals from Rennie Farm in their drinking well.

Dartmouth has provided the Higginses, who live a few hundred yards downhill from the dump site, with bottled water and medical advice since the discovery of the contaminant, a common solvent component called 1,4-dioxane, in fall 2015.

But negotiations to relocate the residents have stalled, and the Higginses are preparing to bring a federal lawsuit against Dartmouth, alleging that administrators were negligent in their cleanup and caused harm to the family.

Geoffrey Vitt, the Higginses’ Norwich-based attorney, said he was finalizing their legal complaint in an interview on Monday.

He said he hadn’t reviewed the value assurance program enough to comment on it.

The couple reported health effects such as dizziness and peeling skin that they ascribe to dioxane; the college says there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove this.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies 1,4-dioxane, which is present in some household products, as a probable human carcinogen.

Long-term effects of dioxane toxicity can include kidney and liver damage.

Scientists working for Dartmouth determined the “program area,” or the properties eligible for participation, based on their expectation of contamination risk, administrators said.

The area does not include the house near the Lyme town line on Hanover Center Road owned by the Gorlovs, who were the second family near Rennie Farm to learn their well contained 1,4-dioxane.

Dartmouth initially said its working theory was that the chemical came from Rennie Farm, but later said an investigation had determined the family’s well had been contaminated by their own septic tank. The Gorlovs, researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine who live nearly a mile from the dump site, do not accept this conclusion.

“The selection (of eligible properties) is scientifically based,” Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said in an email on Monday, “and because we have determined that the 1,4-dioxane detection at (the Gorlov well) is not from the Rennie Farm, it is not included.”

The list of properties also does not include the home of Duncan Syme, who lives on Rennie Road, just outside of the program area. Syme’s well is 6 feet deep, he said, and located next to a stream that registered low levels of dioxane.

In a follow-up email, Lawrence said the program boundary was based on a hydrogeologic investigation and included “anticipated areas of environmental impact and the potential boundaries of the state (water regulators’) groundwater management zone.”

In addition to that, she said, the eligible area includes an extra buffer “as an added measure of safety.”

Syme and others not included in the program said the area should be wider because buyer anxiety, rather than the predictions of Dartmouth’s scientists, will determine the market effect of pollution.

“As far as I’m concerned, the ring of influence is what the realtors and the buyers think it is,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, adding later, “I not only don’t view this as Dartmouth living up to Rick Mills’ promise of being a good neighbor, but I see this as a financially and legalistically driven response to the situation.”

Amy Redpath, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Lifestyles in Hanover, said it was still undetermined whether Rennie Farm had harmed surrounding market values.

“But certainly if properties in the ‘location radius’ have water issues and suffer negative marketability from that, this program is a help to sellers,” she said in an email on Monday. “The main goal, in my mind, is to correct safety issues and maintain expectations of value in that area.”

Peter Spiegel, a former chairman of Dartmouth’s radiology department who lives to the south of Rennie Farm on Ferson Road, applauded the effort to compensate homeowners.

But like Syme, Spiegel is outside the program area, and he echoed Syme’s point about setting the geographic limits of any potential market fallout.

“I think it’s very nice of Dartmouth to recognize the damage they’ve done, at least in part, and to step up to the plate and offer to compensate the immediate neighbors of Rennie Farm,” he said Monday night. “But it misses an important point. And that is it doesn’t recognize the fact that the damage goes far beyond contamination or even potential contamination.”

Under the value assurance program, residents wishing to apply for compensation from Dartmouth must demonstrate that they have made a good-faith effort to sell their properties.

After that, the college may buy their homes at market value as compared to similar homes outside the contaminated area.

Alternatively, if residents are forced to sell their properties below market value, they may ask Dartmouth to make up the difference.

On Rennie Road, which passes below the hillside where the test animals were buried, a property a few doors down from the Higginses sold for $429,000 last year, according to the Grafton County Registry of Deeds.

A sample reimbursement agreement in the program booklet requires that homeowners waive their right to sue Dartmouth for claims related to the loss of value to their homes in exchange for taking the money.

Homeowners may choose from a list of real estate agents and appraisers approved by Dartmouth, the booklet says, and Dartmouth will pay back residents for their real estate agents’ commissions.

Administrators said the list would be open to as many real estate professionals as possible who had completed college “training” on the site, which includes information from Dartmouth on the hydrogeological features of the area and the health risks of contamination.

Residents may apply for reimbursement until 2022, when the college expects its “pump-and-treat” system will have drained the area of contaminated water and removed the 1,4-dioxane.

Arnold said that college officials had chosen the program’s duration and geographic area based on the information available to them now, but that they are aware circumstances may change.

College officials have estimated that the Rennie Farm cleanup has cost about $8.4 million since an initial 2011 excavation. Adding up the assessed values of the eligible properties easily yields multiple millions of dollars.

Businesses and institutions elsewhere have used value assurance programs to calm real estate markets roiled by pollution.

Last spring, in Corning, N.Y., concerns about lead and arsenic contamination in residential neighborhoods spurred Corning Inc., a glass and ceramics manufacturer, to roll out a similar program.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Clarification

Neighbors of the former medical school dump site at Rennie Farm who accept reimbursements from Dartmouth College's new "value assurance program" must agree to waive their right to sue the college for claims related to the loss of value to their homes. The participating homeowners, however, would not waive all rights to sue Dartmouth over the contamination. An earlier version of this story misstated the waiver restriction. 




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