New Milford mayor says redevelopment project too divisive.
NEW MILFORD – Plans for a natural gas-fired power plant and any immediate hope for economic redevelopment of the former Century Brass property are dead.
Mayor David Gronbach on Monday, as public opposition grew, released a letter stating he has withdrawn a proposal to sell for $2.8 million the nearly 70-acre property to Panda Power Funds of Dallas, Texas.
The company approached the town with a proposal to build a 550-megawatt power plant on the industrial property along Housatonic Avenue and Aspetuck Ridge Road.
Gronbach said the divisive project and the controversy it has caused among a vocal opposition prompted him to withdraw the request for the industrial-zoned property before taking it to a town referendum.
In recent weeks informational meetings hosted by Panda have drawn dozens of opponents.
“I knew that some people would oppose the proposal and others would support it. My goal was to allow information to be provided to the community and allow them to decide,” Gronbach wrote. “Some information sessions have involved shouting, accusations of collusion, blatant misinformation and scare tactics, threats and intimidation of people, including Town employees.”
In the few weeks leading up to the Mayor’s announcement, the opposition grew steadily once an online petition on Change.org was posted, which now has more than 1,500 signatures.
Several residents began to voice their concerns over social media. Anti-Panda lawn signs can also be seen along many of the town’s well-traveled roads. One activist group recently sent a mass mailing out to residents.
Panda representatives had said the plant was expected to power up to 500,000 homes and it would have created 500 jobs during construction and another 25 to 30 full-time jobs operating the plant. Another 59 indirect jobs to support its operation were also expected. It had not yet been reviewed or approved by the Connecticut Siting Council, which is the state authority on power plants.
“The Mayor’s letter speaks for itself, and we have nothing to add,” said Bill Pentak, vice president of public affairs for Panda.
New Milford has owned the property since 1999, and for the past 11 years the brownfield has been remediated at a cost of millions in state, federal and local tax dollars. Workers continue to haul away what’s left of 1,500 tons of contaminated steel and debris laden with hazardous materials. Gronbach recently said the third and final phase of demolishing a 320,000-square-foot building is nearly finished. He said the property should be cleaned of contaminants within the next few months, though it will be subject to future testing by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The amount spent to date on remediating the property was not available Monday, but the third phase cost $2.5 million, town officials said.
After releasing his letter Monday, Gronbach said he will work with elected officials and the economic development director to explore other possibilities for the site.
“Although I am withdrawing the Panda Proposal, it sparked an important conversation about our town and its future,” he said.
Gronbach and Kevin Bielmeier, the town’s economic development director, were encouraged by the Panda proposal as it was the first serious plan to be brought before the town for the Century Brass site, which has been vacant since 1986.
Gronbach said the town would have seen an immediate $2.8 million in direct revenue from the real estate sale.
THE POWER PLANT WAS expected to bring in between $6 million and $10 million in annual tax revenue, quickly surpassing the town’s largest taxpayer, Kimberly-Clark Corp., which pays around $2.7 million in taxes annually.
Gronbach and Bielmeier said the tax income would have allowed the town to invest in major town projects, including developing the riverfront area to make it more available for businesses and recreational use. They also had plans to use the revenue for education and to reduce taxes and to relocate the town garage.
Mayor David Gronbach’s letter: withdrawal-of-panda-proposal-11-14-16
This article written by Alicia Sakal originally appeared online as premium content and on the front page in the November 15, 2016 edition of Republican-American, a regional daily newspaper in Connecticut. Photos: Alicia Sakal