Council agrees to sell Jesse Lee, hears lagoon concerns

Heidi Zemach for SCN –

Friends of Jesse Lee Home (FJLH) members celebrated, and filmed themselves talking about their victory at Monday night’s meeting after the Seward City Council agreed to transfer the old national historic building orphanage and land upon which it sits to their organization for “less than the appraised value,” meaning for practically nothing except closing costs.

Meanwhile, local businessman Tom Tougas, who spoke on behalf of Larry Harmon, owner of Harmon Construction and Harmon Properties LLC, who wants the city to let him purchase the property he leases at Seward Municipal Industrial Center (SMIC) to build storage warehouses on, left the meeting deeply disappointed. The council had reversed the direction it had unanimously given to administration two weeks ago to begin negotiating a sale to Harmon.

Margaret Anderson warns council of her qualms about Jesse Lee Home transfer and renovation project.

Margaret Anderson warns council of her qualms about Jesse Lee Home transfer and renovation project.

The Council Chamber at City Hall was filled to capacity with people standing in the hallway waiting for a chance to get in. Citizens Comments was dominated by residents and business owners from Lowell Point, unhappy over the continued stench coming from the city sewage lagoon. They detailed how badly it smelled, and that the hydrogen sulfide released at the lagoon physically sickened them. They asked the city to conduct air quality monitoring to determine how safe the air was to breath. Visitors were cancelling their stays, and her business at the campground she owns adjacent to the facility was down by 60 percent, said Sue Lang. Even with new aerators that the city purchased now up and running, and odor-aiding chemicals on their way by barge, the residents said they could not book visitors for next year’s tourist season, not knowing when the work would be occurring. Lynda Paquette voiced concern that the deadline in the city’s Request For Proposals (RFP) to dredge the accumulated sludge was set to end in June of 2015, when the next season was well under way. She and her neighbors also are alarmed that the city’s RFP will allow 50,000 gallons of wastewater generated from the prison daily to be trucked directly to the lagoon at Lowell Point, or deposited at an entry point near the waterfall while dredging at Spring Creek lagoon is underway, even before dredging occurs at Lowell Point. They said the additional wastewater would increase that lagoon’s smells and health hazards, and said that city residents can expect heavy trucks driving through town all day, day after day.

Dr. John French, an Environmental Toxicologist attending the meeting for another item, was moved to address the topic, and attempted to explain the science of health hazards caused by chemicals that are being released into the air, and which, he said, would become even more toxic when stirred up during the dredging process.

City Manager Jim Hunt denied that the plan was to dispose of the Spring Creek wastewater at the Lowell Point lagoon, although Public Works Director W.C. Casey told SCN as much, and the RFP also does. Hunt also denied that the two sewage projects had been linked in the RFP. One company could conceivably be chosen to do one project, and another to do the other, he said. When asked by council members whether the city would monitor the air to warn residents of any hazards, Hunt seemed reluctant, and added that the city’s air monitoring equipment might not be accurate.

The two main topics however, were the transfer of the Jesse Lee Home to the non-profit FJLH, and reconsideration of the city moving forward with negotiations to sell the property at SMIC leased to Harmon Properties, LLC.

Jesse Lee Home



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Dorene Lorenze, one of several FJLH advocates attending the meeting, addresses the gathering.

Dorene Lorenze, one of several FJLH advocates attending the meeting, addresses the gathering.

The council voted to allow two parcels of Historic Jesse Lee Home orphanage land to be transferred to Friends of Jesse Lee at below the admittedly low valued 2011 appraisal of $470,000 in order to allow that group to obtain funding for the rehabilitation and development of the property as an educational leadership school and boarding school facility. Since repossessing the property in 2001, after another private party’s attempt at rehabilitation failed, the city has paid $265,000 in back taxes, utility assessment, and uncounted administrative, maintenance and risk-control costs, according to the city’s purchase agreement. The sale transfers the city’s risks and liability of the abandoned properties and the necessary site hazardous material cleanup and abatement to the buyer. If certain improvements aren’t completed within a five-year “Due Diligence Period,” or if the properties are used for any purpose other than for public education and boarding, the property may revert back to the city. The improvements, estimated at $290,000 include HAZMAT abatement, half of the water and sewer utilities, and two hydrants.

There’s no way that the city could do all the abatement  on the land required to sell it, said Ron Long, the assistant city manager.

“If we have to take the property back, it will be cleared and develop-able, in better shape than it is today,” he said.   FJLH had already coordinated environmental studies, HAZMAT assessments, survey work, and architectural design work.  With its successful fundraising campaign, the nonprofit appears better situated to bring the property back to a viable state that would restore the public purposes for which the city had hoped to sell it, he said.

During a public comment period residents Margaret Anderson and Rhonda Hubbard spoke passionately about their misgivings about the proposed project, and warned the council to hold FJLH accountable for their actions. Hubbard did not believe that the non-profit had done a structural engineering study, as it had not produced it for public review, nor did she believe the group’s projected costs for rebuilding and remodeling the facility. Anderson said the Jesse Lee Home had been “condemned, vacant and vandalized for 50 years: “This is the third or fourth time that this property’s been for sale, and all have been miserable failures. The last time, the legal fees cost the city thousands of dollars,” Anderson said. “I fear that we’re headed to another cliff.”

Seward Historic Commission member John French’s attempt to have language inserted into the sale agreement officially preserving the National Register of Historic Places’ requirements and culture when building the new facility also failed for lack of council interest. FJLH leaders, including Dorene Lorenz countered that they had hired an expert to counsel the group on National Historic Site preservation, and see that they comply every step of the way. All of the group’s expenditures had been microscopically audited by the state, she added. “We passed it. We’re looking at phase II already. The School is already, in heart, open,” Lorenz said, pointing to the recent Balto Film Festival, a contest that resulted in 100 quickly made movies produced locally.

An effort by council member Rissie Casagranda to amend the contract to shorten the due diligence period to three years also failed narrowly. Later, Hubbard spoke with Lorenz who, she said informed her the proposed work could be done in considerably less time.

Following the meeting, Kirsten Vesel, FJLH’s executive director and project manager said that she was very pleased with the council’s vote, many years  in the making, and that her group is ready and eager to get started on the work. Members of the Historic Preservation Committee also were invited to meet their National Historic Preservation expert consultant at their downtown Seward office the next evening.

(The council’s reversal of their SMIC property sale to Harmon Properties LLC will be posted next.)

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