Owner of White River Junction Property Ravaged by Fire Looks to Rebuild

  • Jared Keith, co-owner of White River Traffic Group, left, and his mother, Doreen Keith, move into a temporary office space at Gilman Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. A massive fire on Feb. 28 destroyed three buildings, which included White River Traffic Group's office. Doreen's dance costuming studio was also destroyed in the fire. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sonya Smith, an administrative employee for Eustis Cable, works out of a temporary office space at Gilman Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. A massive fire on Feb. 28 destroyed three buildings, which included Eustis Cable's office. Smith backed up most of her work online but lost her pet fish, Palmer, in the fire. One of her employers has since given her a new fish, named Palmer II. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Three buildings near Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction, Vt., are ablaze early in the morning on Feb. 28, 2017. (Matt Dunbar photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/9/2017 12:41:18 AM
Modified: 3/9/2017 2:44:51 PM

White River Junction — For the owners of the three buildings destroyed in an early-morning blaze last week at a small riverside industrial park, the real cost of the disaster may well hinge on how long it takes to rebuild on the site.

For now, none of the roughly 35 workers employed in the affected buildings at the 8.5-acre site in the Nutt Lane neighborhood have lost their jobs, according to Kenny Keith, one of four partners in White River Investment Properties LLC, which owns the property.

“When I turn the corner every morning, that first glimpse still shocks me,” Keith said on Wednesday, speaking from temporary office space he is renting in the nearby Gilman Office Complex off Sykes Mountain Avenue. “It’s like, wow. It did happen. It wasn’t a dream.”

Keith, a Hartland resident, said he and the other partners — Sue Kay, Mike Palmer and Keith’s son, Jared Keith — are all working overtime to satisfy the requirements of the town, the state, the insurance companies and their customers in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

“As an ownership group, we couldn’t be tighter,” Keith said. “We’re all moving forward on the same page, and everyone has put in a ton of effort.”

Environmental cleanup is being handled by Harper Environmental Associates, of Bridgewater.

On Wednesday morning, a pair of contractors picked their way through the twisted and blackened remains of the former truck garage, office building and solar tracker manufacturing facility, considering the details of a massive demolition job that would entail knocking down the remaining bits of structure and separating the debris into materials that need to be put into a landfill, and those that, like concrete and metal, can be recycled.

“We’ve had four or five contractors looking at it,” Keith said. “About 75 or 80 percent of that site will be recycled.”

The site, located at the end of Harrison Avenue, has had a variety of owners, and been used by numerous businesses that have built six buildings and at least 10 outbuildings over the decades, with one of the destroyed buildings dating back to 1950.

It once was used as a rail spur for shipping, and has housed a hardware distributor. It was purchased by William Cameron and Co. in 1994 for $1.2 million and changed hands again in 2002, when Stephen Greene bought it for $500,000, two years before one of its tenants, the national firm Guardian Building Products, left the area in 2004. White River Investment Properties bought the parcel and buildings for $1.56 million in 2012.

In addition to his stake in White River Investment, Keith operated another company, White River Traffic Group, out of the now-burned buildings. On any given day, he said, 10 or 15 of his workers in that company utilize the Gilman Complex, while others are working trucking jobs on the road.

Most of the other affected workers, about a dozen, are employed by Solaflect Energy, where President Bill Bender said people are maintaining a sense of humor.

“This is a case of fossil fuels taking out a solar company,” he said, referring to the various explosions caused by containers of propane, waste oil, diesel and gasoline used by the other companies. “Literally on every single side of us was something that blew up.”

The cause of the fire, which was first noticed early Tuesday morning by a sleeping trucker who was awakened by exploding fuel containers, is undetermined, according to local and state officials. Keith said an insurance investigation team also was unable to pin down exactly how the fire began.

Bender said the company has found temporary space near Fogg’s Hardware on Route 5 in Norwich, and is working to replace certain key pieces of equipment, including a custom-built tracking cable sizing machine and a testing machine, unique pieces that will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Bender said Solaflect’s long-term location is an open question at the moment.

“We loved the location and Kenny was a great landlord,” Bender said. “We’d love to be there again, but it’s just a question of if the timing works out.”

Keith said he’s pressing for a rapid rebuild schedule.

“I’m probably optimistic, but we hope to be rebuilt and have everyone back in place in a six- to 12-month time frame,” he said.

Sometimes, rebuilding can be easier said than done, as was the case with Britton Lumber Co., which owned a Fairlee sawmill on the banks of the Connecticut River that burned down in 2015.

For more than a year, owner Robert Moses said, he thought about the fire every single day.

“You just can’t imagine it until you go through it,” he said.

After spending another year exploring his options, Moses decided it made more sense to purchase an existing sawmill in Bath, N.H.

Moses, a former city councilor in Lebanon, said that while the regulatory hurdles of rebuilding so close to the river weren’t a deal-breaker, the added expenses were a consideration.

“We had an opportunity to acquire the Bath sawmill and be up and running our business within 15 months, as opposed to having a two- or three-year construction project,” he said.

Moses said that, if asked, his advice to Keith and his partners would involve its insurance claims.

“Our insurance company was fair and they worked with us, but they’re also protecting their shareholders, like we’re trying to protect our shareholders,” Moses said. “My advice would be make sure you have good counsel representing you with the insurance company.”

One common impediment to Vermont developers is Act 250, a law that requires large developers to go through a sometimes-extensive process to get a state permit.

Keith’s rebuilding effort will not require an Act 250 permit, in part because the property does not exceed the 10-acre minimum threshold that would trigger the permitting requirement, according to Linda Matteson, coordinator for the District 3 Environmental Commission.

Keith said he and the town were in the early stages of conversations about how he could rebuild within the town’s zoning requirements.

Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar said staff members are doing research to determine whether the site’s proximity to the Connecticut River will interfere with a rebuilding effort.

“I don’t think so,” Pullar said, “but we have to understand what they want to do and how they want to do it and how it interacts with the rules.”

Keith also said the fire carried with it a silver lining — if he can rebuild, he said, the new buildings will be up to code, and energy efficient.

“It will look much nicer,” Keith said. “Instead of being a jumble of a bunch of buildings, it will have some continuity to it.”

Keith said the Harrison Avenue property also was heavily damaged during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Fire is better, he said.

“There was no value after the flood,” he said. “It comes in and it leaves a mess and it goes away. With fire, it’s cleansing. It’s amazing how, after a bad forest fire, within days you start to see new green sprouts. We’re hoping that has the same effect here.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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