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Pollution risk hinders potential asset

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CHAUMONT — At Route 12E and Morris Tract Road, a gas station sits abandoned. It has been that way for more than a decade, accumulating unpaid property tax debt and assaulting the eyes of residents.

Now a plan to rehabilitate the property has emerged, a plan that Lyme Town Councilwoman Anne M. Harris presented to the Jefferson County Board of Legislators on Tuesday night.

Building on a small farmers market that has sprouted up on the site, the town would take over the property and convert it into a year-round community marketplace and small-business incubator.

There is just one problem: no one knows the extent of the contamination of the site.

The former gas station, which is owned by Leo Wilson, sits in a kind of limbo.

The county started to foreclose on the property but has since halted those proceedings, unwilling to take the risk that it may end up inheriting a very expensive cleanup bill.

Just to remove the underground fuel tanks at the site could cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

And if one of the tanks has started leaking over the past 10 years, the cost of removing contaminated soil could soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Environmental testing on the site and three other delinquent properties may pave the way for redevelopment of the former gas station.

An ad hoc committee of county legislators, composed of Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, and Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, has identified the four sites as “commercially viable” and is willing to foot the bill for in-depth testing of each site.

“If we’re happy with the results, we’ll keep the properties. If we’re unhappy with the results, we’ll leave them in the hands of the current owners,” Mr. Paulsen said.

The risk of assuming the cost of cleanup has kept potential investors at bay, according to county legislators.

By identifying the extent of whatever contamination may have occurred, legislators hope to attract business investment in the properties.

“We want to present potential buyers with this information and dispel the fear that they’re walking into a risky situation cost-wise because of the contamination,” Mr. Paulsen said.

Though testing was supposed to begin this summer, so far there has been no indication as to the progress of the study, according to Mr. Paulsen.

If the county were to undertake the cost of cleaning up the sites, it would want to recoup its investment by selling them to tax-paying businesses.

“We’re trying to get them back on the tax roll,” Mr. Ferris said after the board’s meeting Tuesday night.

Turning over the former gas station to the town, even for a nominal fee, would not satisfy that requirement because if the town owned the property, it would be tax-exempt.

But Mrs. Harris argues that the community marketplace would be good for the community and for the county by promoting local agricultural offerings and helping young entrepreneurs learn how to manage businesses.

And with little demonstrated business interest in the site since it closed as a gas station, she said, that argument has merit, especially since volunteers already have expressed interest in helping to clean up the site and the Future Business Leaders of Lyme Central School has come up with a sketch of how the marketplace would look.

After hashing out their positions Tuesday night, the two sides likely will have to wait on the results of the environmental study before fleshing out their plans any further.

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