Article date: May 28, 1999

Official: Avtex site will be ready by end of the year

 Heavener says county will take ownership of 60 acres by September

By Diane Hartson

Warren County will take ownership of about 60 acres at the Avtex Fibers Superfund site in Front Royal by September and the business park planned for the site will be ready for its first tenant by the end of the year, Economic Development Authority Executive Director Stephen A. Heavenor said.

"We're in the final throes of final negotiations to take control of the property, and I'm very confident we will reach agreement with [former property owner] FMC [corp.], the EPA and the bankruptcy court within 60 to 90 days," Heavener said Thursday.

The former Avtex rayon plant has been a Superfund site since 1986. The factory closed its doors voluntarily in 1989 after more than 2,000 violations of environmental laws.

Local officials have been struggling for years to overcome the legal hurdles involved in taking ownership of clean portions of the site and developing them.

Last year, the authority approved a plan that calls for the eventual development of the site with a mixed use of commercial, business, light industrial and recreational projects.

Officials are working on the transfer of about 60 acres, including the 25 acres Stump Park; about 25 acres, including and surrounding the office building at the front of the site on Kendrick Lane; and about 10 acres at the parking lot on the Kendrick Lane, Heavener said.

"By mid-September the ownership issues and the prospective purchaser agreement will be finalized," he said. "I have very high expectations to see some improvements for redevelopment, actually starting redevelopment this calendar year."

The prospective purchaser agreement is aimed at ensuring that Warren County won't be held liable for any past pollution if it takes over the land. The federal Superfund law holds all owners, past and future, financially responsible for cleanup costs.

There should soon be an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and FMC, which, as a former owner, is partly responsible for cleaning up the site, he said. That pact will call for FMC to take on more of the responsibility for overseeing the cleanup, he said.

And the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia is expected to issue a plan for the site that will allow the county to take ownership of the cleaned portions soon, Heavener said.

"This is the longest unresolved bankruptcy on the docket in the Philadelphia region," he said.

The portions being, eyed for the first land transfer are areas "that have never been environmentally tainted," he said.

The first project, once the transfer takes place, will be the renovation of the front office building, which straddles the road entering the site with a small guardhouse in the center.

The half of the building on the left side will be given over to offices for the EPA and FMC, he said. The authority will take the right side, most of which will be leased to a business. A multimedia room in which information about the site can be presented also will be created on that side, he said.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 square feet of office space will be available on that side, possibly for a high-tech company he plans to recruit, Heavener said.

Next on the agenda for the development of the site will be acquisition and renovation of land on which remaining buildings are located, he said. The EPA has demolished about 30 acres of buildings at the site but has not plans to tear down those buildings, which contain no toxic materials.

About a third of the buildings do, however, contain lead paint and asbestos and are in poor condition. The authority will clean up the asbestos and lead and demolish the buildings, a project that will cost $10 million to $15 million and take three to five years. Heavener said the project could start as soon as next year.

The authority is looking for funding for that project, including grants, he said.

But the front office building will be the real start of the Avtex business park, and the end of the long waiting period for reuse of the site, he said.

"Finally I'm starting to predict we can use [the site] to bring in business" he said. "In 10 to 15 years, that site will be a beautiful development with high-quality, high-paying jobs, and hopefully the negative memories of Avtex will be forgotten."