Pawcatuck residents support town effort to address blighted mill

Stonington — About 60 people gathered at the Pawcatuck firehouse Wednesday night told town officials that they want the town to secure the site and take actions leading to the environmental cleanup and possible redevelopment of the abandoned Connecticut Casting Mill on Stillman Avenue.

Town officials had slated the community forum to get input on what should be done about the crumbling mill, which sits along the Pawcatuck River, has structural failures and is an attractive site for trespassers.

At the meeting, Director of Planning Jason Vincent outlined a process for taking action as the property owners are in the process of dissolving their group and formally abandoning the site.

He said the plan includes conducting an environmental assessment of the contaminated property and building, seeking state funding for the work, securing the site to prevent trespassing, and developing a master plan for the property. That would give the town detailed information about a possible use of the property and the costs as it seeks a developer to take on the project.

“We’re giving it time and attention so we can come up with a solution,” Vincent said.

He said one of the biggest fears is the building will catch fire or collapse on itself, which would increase the cost of cleanup past the prior estimate of $1.1 million.

When the group of residents were asked if the town should proceed with securing the site and finding a use for it, all raised their hands.

Vincent began the forum by saying the current ownership group Pawcatuck Landing LLC owes back taxes or blight fines and ignores his phone calls. He said the group is dissolving, which will leave it up to the town to figure out what to do with the property. The town put the property up for auction this year to reclaim the back taxes but no one bid on it because of the high cost of the environmental cleanup.

“This problem is not going away,” he said.

Later, Vincent added that the current owners, who had approval for 37 residential units, are not bad people.

“They tried to do something way over their heads and invested a lot of money. And they were not successful,” he said.

Vincent said the costs of the environmental cleanup are a barrier for prospective developers, as they could not make their money back on the project.

Residents suggested uses that range from a Pawcatuck River Museum and a public park to housing, artist studios and offices. Some expressed concerns about it becoming affordable housing, which they said Pawcatuck already has more of than other sections of town.

Vincent told the group that he had to push back against the notion that affordable housing is bad.

“Developments with low-income units are not bad developments in this community,” he said.

Vincent said there may be state and federal grants, not just for remediation but development. But he added those agencies like to see towns have “skin in the game,” such as money invested in the project.

“The question is do we do more than we do now and do we have the fortitude to do it,” he said. “It won’t get done without community support; that’s why I’m so grateful to see so many people here.”

It is estimated it would cost $4.5 million to clean up the site and shore up the collapsing building and repair broken windows and fencing. The town is determining how much it would cost to demolish the building and then clean up the site.

Finding such funding could be difficult, as the town is in the midst of a $67 million elementary school renovation project and the $2.2 million Mystic River Boathouse Park.

Vincent said that positive things happen when projects are given attention, pointing to the recent demolition of the Campbell Grain Building and the renovation of 2-4 Mechanic St., a long blighted building, by Best Energy owner Jim Lathrop.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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