BERLIN – Town officials agreed to close Heron Park indefinitely rather than spend $55,000 more on cleanup costs.
At Monday’s meeting of the Berlin Town Council, officials voted 3-1, with Councilman Dean Burrell opposed and Councilman Troy Purnell absent, to close the park. Though the cleanup of the chemical spill that occurred at the property has been completed, debris from the remaining buildings at the former poultry processing plant still needs to be removed.
“It seems like there’s a lot of obstacles there that could cause some harm,” Councilman Zack Tyndall said.
According to Mayor Gee Williams, roughly $75,000 in demolition work had been completed at the park when June’s chemical spill occurred. Since then, the town has spent $260,578 on spill cleanup and Williams expects final costs to reach $283,000. Nevertheless, he asked the council Monday to consider spending an additional $55,000 with Goody Hill Groundworks to have the various piles of debris and dilapidated small buildings on the site removed. He said the town had gotten pricing from Goody Hill because the company had a good history of working with the town.
“We wanted to make sure it was someone we had full confidence in,” he said.
Managing Director Jeff Fleetwood pointed out that there was “a big unknown” with the valves and piping located near a portion of the debris. When asked by a member of the audience if soil samples in the area had been taken, Fleetwood said Chesapeake Environmental Services, the company that handled the spill cleanup, had used ground penetrating radar.
Williams said the pipes hadn’t been used in at least 15 years and said he thought they could just be covered and buried.
Resident Deborah Fletcher suggested selling the property to developers. She said the town had spent enough money on it and would only continue to do so.
“It just seems like we’re creating more bureaucracy,” she said.
Williams said the town couldn’t do anything with the property until it was cleaned up. He added that aside from the area of the spill, the park had provided positive environmental experiences for birdwatchers and school groups.
Tyndall asked how the town would pay the $55,000 cleanup cost. Williams said it could be borrowed from the money generated by the sale of the Dollar General property, which was set aside for a community center.
“That’s something we’d have to pay back,” Williams said.
When Tyndall expressed concern about the safety of the park as it was, Fleetwood said the town had met the basic requirements by cordoning off the areas of debris.
“Somebody could walk into it even if we closed it,” Burrell pointed out.
He said he didn’t think the town needed to make a decision as far as reassigning funds yet because it was still so early in the fiscal year.
“I do believe we need to proceed with getting this property as pristine as possible,” he said.
Resident Marie Velong said she thought the town should close the park until it had more money.
“We’ve survived without this park for a very long time,” she said, adding that the proposed cleanup costs could rise once work began and more problems were discovered.
Velong also said that borrowing between funds was what had caused the town’s budget struggles in the spring. She said the town spent more and more at the park when it couldn’t even purchase proper microphones for the council chambers.
“This was a catastrophe,” she said. “It should have never been bought knowing what was there.”
Fletcher agreed and suggested the town put the brakes on non-essential spending.
Burrell said determining whether something was essential or not depended on where an individual was sitting. He made a motion to approve spending $55,000 on cleanup. It failed, however, with no other votes in favor. Tyndall went on to make a motion to close the park indefinitely. It was approved with the support of Tyndall and Councilmen Elroy Brittingham and Thom Gulyas.
“I think if there’s anything we can do in-house, with our employees, we should do that to make it safe,” Brittingham said.
Velong asked why the proposed $55,000 expenditure hadn’t been included on the evening’s council agenda.
“Do you have any idea what this week’s been like?” Williams said. “Here’s the thing, we’re trying to do everything open we can. I tell you, you want to do this job, come up here and do it.”
Williams said he was trying to keep things moving in town and that the information had just come together Monday afternoon.
“I don’t see any way we should put off the discussion for two weeks because we couldn’t get it on the agenda,” he said. “If somebody wants me to go to hell for that, then I’ll just go to hell. There’s enough. There’s just enough. This is a situation that, we inherited this situation. You may disagree with the way we’ve handled it but the fact that we’re not just going to kick the can down the road because we couldn’t get it on the agenda when it’s right out here in the public for anybody who wants to know, anybody that’s listening, the press. I’m not going to apologize for that.”