Groton — The City Council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance on Monday that is designed to delay by at least three months the planned demolition of Pfizer's former research headquarters.
Viewed as a stalling tactic by some, the "building preservation" ordinance is aimed at providing time for Pfizer, or another demolition applicant of comparable size, to explore alternatives to demolition while addressing environmental and safety concerns associated with the demolition.
The ordinance establishes a 90-day waiting period between the time a demolition permit is applied for and granted. The time would allow "all interested parties to consider alternatives to demolition and to examine the impact of demolition on the environment," according to the ordinance. It also establishes a process in which companies like Pfizer would be "informed of the benefits of preservation, rehabilitation and reuse."
While Pfizer has yet to submit a demolition application, it has announced its plans to tear down Building 118, a mostly vacant 750,000-square-foot complex off Eastern Point Road. The demolition would reduce the town's tax base by more than $2 million.
Pfizer's announcement of the impending demolition was greeted with surprise and disappointment by local and state officials who had worked to find a buyer to reuse the complex for the economic benefit of the entire region. One developer had expressed interest in acquiring the buildings. Even after Pfizer's announcement, some town officials clung to hope that a deal could be reached.
After Monday's City Council meeting, city Mayor Marian Galbraith said the need for an ordinance crystallized after a meeting between a Pfizer representative and a city building official on Friday.
It became clear at that meeting, Galbraith said, that part of Pfizer's plan would be to "pulverize" existing structures and leave debris in basement space on site.
"That raised significant environmental concerns for us," Galbraith said. "Is the site going to be rebuildable? We don't want to be left with a contaminated brownfield that large."
Over the course of the last several days, Galbraith said, she spoke with local and state environmental officials and gathered legal advice on how to craft an ordinance that fully addresses health and safety concerns while giving time for Pfizer to rethink ideas for the reuse of the complex.
"There are some people who can look over their fences and see the building," said councilor Andrew Ilvento.
Part of the ordinance asks the applicant to include "a narrative statement of all alternatives to demolition considered by the applicant." The demolition plan, applicable to large commercial and industrial buildings, must also include a detailed plan for the removal of hazardous waste such as asbestos, lead paint and heavy metals.
Councilor Keith Hedrick, while supporting the ordinance, asked whether the city had the ability to deny a demolition application if it was determined all alternatives to demolition had not been explored. He said he would also be leery that an additional layer of oversight that might cost the city.
Pfizer declined comment Monday.
Groton Town Mayor Heather Bond Somers attended Monday's meeting and was skeptical that the ordinance was much more than a delay tactic not likely to be well received by Pfizer.
She said town officials were unaware of the proposed ordinance.
"We have had what we thought was good communication and coordination between the city and town during this whole process. It clearly has not continued since Pfizer's decision," Bond Somers said.
As for bringing Pfizer and the interested developer back to the table, Bond Somers said "I don't think the city can force a deal in this way."
Since the ordinance was voted on at a special meeting the council plans to reaffirm its vote at its next regular meeting.