Dartmouth to Talk Property Values in Wake of Rennie Farm Contamination

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2017

Hanover — Dartmouth College is set to hold a private meeting with area real estate agents and brokers in what some residents see as an attempt to stave off market concerns about pollution believed to be caused by the school.

The seminar, titled “Environmental Contamination & Stigma: A Rennie Farm Case Study for Real Estate Agents & Brokers,” will include presentations on medical, environmental and housing market ramifications from the contamination at Rennie Farm, the hillside property near Hanover Center where the college medical school decades ago buried the carcasses of lab animals.

According to a flier provided by the college, the event at 10 a.m. today at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is free to attend and can count as continuing education credit for New Hampshire real estate professionals.

A Dartmouth spokeswoman on Thursday said the gathering would be a venue “to provide factual information about Rennie Farm and updates on issues related to property value.”

A subterranean plume of a probable human carcinogen — 1,4-dioxane — is thought to have migrated from the burying ground and the college has been working to track its spread underground and in the water supply.

Residents of the affected neighborhood said the event looked to them like a bid to calm the market, given that some people in the area were having trouble selling their homes.

“I’m assuming the idea is to still the potential concern that realtors might have so that it doesn’t affect the market,” said Duncan Syme, a resident who lives on Rennie Road, near the suspected path of the chemical plume.

In an interview on Thursday, Syme said he suspected Dartmouth wanted to try to prop up real estate prices to discourage legal action from residents over potential financial losses.

Syme, who is retired, said a good deal of his wealth was tied up in his home, which real estate agents had told him he was unlikely to sell anytime soon — unless he agreed to a significant markdown.

College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence on Thursday said keeping the market stable would benefit all parties.

“Dartmouth is committed to addressing the neighbors’ concerns and we have been told by a number of residents that realtors are reluctant to list properties in the Rennie Farm neighborhood at this time,” she said in an email. “It is in everyone’s interest to try to preserve property values and maintain a steady real estate market.”

Lawrence declined a reporter’s request to attend the seminar, saying it was being kept closed “because we want to encourage participants to speak openly and candidly.”

Real estate agents on Thursday offered mixed impressions of the contamination’s effect on the property market in the vicinity of Rennie Farm.

“I’d say in general people are nervous,” Amy Redpath of Coldwell Banker Lifestyles in Hanover said. “I think certainly if your address is Rennie Road it gives people a little pause. Definitely a lot of people have read the newspaper and are up to date with things that are going on with (the contamination).”

Rennie Road is east of Rennie Farm, and a private well downhill from the burial ground was the first to show signs of contamination from 1,4-dioxane.

Redpath said that she advised sellers in the area to test their water before listing a property. Homeowners also should expect potential buyers to run their own tests, she said.

She noted, however, that she recently had closed a deal within 3 miles of Rennie Farm.

“But it’s definitely coming up,” she added. “To say it’s not an issue would be incorrect.”

Redpath and other real estate agents said the greatest obstacle to property sales was uncertainty about where the chemical would be detected and when Dartmouth would finish its cleanup.

This fall, the college announced it had found 1,4-dioxane in another private drinking well nearly a mile from Rennie Farm; last week, college officials changed course and said the contamination had come from the property’s own septic system — a conclusion the family living there rejects.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth is working to treat the underground plume of dioxane that has spread from Rennie Farm into the surrounding neighborhood.

A system of pumps meant to remove the contaminant was installed last year, and the college’s environmental contractors have said it could take as long as five years to finish treatment.

Until the cleanup is done, concerns about the contamination’s effect on home prices will remain unresolved, said Jane Darrach of Martha Diebold Real Estate.

Asked on Thursday about whether sellers should expect to offer discounts, Darrach said, “We don’t know that, we really don’t. We have no idea what will happen.”

Darrach said there was concern in the market about whether Dartmouth’s remediation effort would provide a definitive resolution, which she said was necessary to prevent a long-term impact on real estate prices.

“I haven’t heard anything that makes me feel that there’s a solution in sight,” she said. “... You have to put yourself in the position of a young couple that’s buying a house and has young children and is told there’s a water issue. We have to know. We have to know there’s a resolution ... in order to sell.”

Redpath said she wasn’t planning to attend the seminar, but Darrach said she was.

“I’m hoping to learn exactly what’s going on out there so I can know what to tell people,” she said.

The attendees are scheduled to hear presentations from Dr. Robert McLellan, chief of the section of environmental and occupational medicine at DHMC; Jim Wieck, a hydrogeologist leading Dartmouth’s water remediation; and Brian Underwood, a real estate counselor with offices in Rye Beach, N.H.

McLellan in November gave a similar talk on Rennie Farm-related health risks to neighbors and community members, in which he said that toxic dioxane exposure from the dump site was unlikely, and noted that the compound appears in some household products.

Last summer, Underwood testified before the Hanover Planning Board on Dartmouth’s behalf, arguing that a proposed 70,000-square-foot college athletic facility off South Park Street would not affect surrounding property values.

Underwood’s presentation today, according to the flier, will cover “stigma effects on real estate” — that is, potential consequences for a property’s market prospects from negative publicity.

Certain types of stigma are required by law to be disclosed to buyers, depending on jurisdiction.

Area real estate agents on Thursday said they felt they were obligated to tell potential buyers about the Rennie Farm contamination, although Redpath said it wasn’t yet clear whether concern about the pollution could be considered a stigma effect.

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