Construction of the 36-unit Newbury Living senior housing complex on the site of the former junior high school in Perry has been delayed by unforeseen environmental issues but is expected to begin soon, according to the West Des Moines development company building the units and the city of Perry officials facilitating the project.
While the waiting list of tenants eager to occupy the new units has now grown from one to four over the last few months, the city and the developer have been exchanging parcels, adjusting prices and trying to deal with a long-forgotten underground gasoline tank on the former public school grounds.
“We knew we were going to have a few environmental hoops, which we were starting to go through,” said Bob Rafferty, attorney for Newbury Management, developer of the two-acre Hamlin-Bell complex.
At the Perry City Council’s Nov. 16 meeting, Rafferty explained why Newbury was giving back to the city the piece of ground the city had given it two weeks previously.
Every change in the terms of Newbury’s Hamlin-Bell project must be reviewed and approved by the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA), which granted Newbury the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits that are paying for the complex. The city’s grant of additional land for the project would normally receive speedy IFA approval, Rafferty said, but the discovery of the buried storage tank meant a likely further delay.
“So now all of a sudden that complicated the whole process of getting approval to add the additional land and threatens to push it back potentially a couple of months,” Rafferty told the council. “And we’re facing deadlines where we really want to move.”
The additional land, at the southwest corner of the block at the intersection of 10th Street and Otley Avenue, would have been used as a storm water retention pond.
Instead, Newbury Management returned the land to the city and “worked with the engineers to figure out a way to retain that storm water on the original parcel so we wouldn’t have to add that additional land,” Rafferty said. “That will hopefully streamline the Iowa Finance Authority’s ability to allow us to proceed.”
The revised design involves storing storm water in pipes underneath the apartment complex’s parking lot and on the east side of the building, Rafferty said.
“In the end,” he said, “it will allow that block to be nicer because you won’t have such a big retention area in the southwest corner but rather it’ll be more spread out, and ours next to our building will actually be a very attractive kind of feature.”
Perry Mayor Jay Pattee was upbeat about the Newbury project in spite of repeated changes.
“It continues to be a good thing for Perry in a big way,” Pattee said, “especially if we have a waiting list.”
The buried fuel-storage tank was originally thought to be south of the Newbury parcel, on the city’s portion of the block.
“As the environmental consultant went on site,” Rafferty said, “one of the things he was verifying was in fact the location of the underground storage tank that had been reported to be on the other parcel. Jack (Butler, Perry Public Works director) went out there with a metal detector and outlined it for the environmental consultant, and he went out there and, sure enough, it is actually on the (Newbury) parcel.”
Environmental scientists Brian Lenz of Des Moines, a state-certified groundwater specialist, and Andrew Gustin of Waterloo, a field technician, collected soil and groundwater samples Nov. 10 around the buried tank, and the results of laboratory testing of the samples were received Nov. 12.
“The good news is that while they haven’t been able to test underneath the tank, they tested around the tank,” Rafferty reported Nov. 16, “as well as tested the groundwater, and the site is a very clean site. So that’s positive. It’s possible there could be some contamination under the tank, so for closing purposes we’ll have to pull it out.”
The soil and water testing is not needed to meet any requirement of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Instead, IFA is “being a stickler in saying the tank has to come out,” said Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson. “But the DNR is saying, ‘It’s a clean, closed tank as far as we’re concerned. It’s off our books.’ So that throws another wrinkle into it.”
Rafferty surprised the council with the information that the project’s financiers are proving even more risk-averse than the Iowa DNR.
“Both the Iowa Finance Authority as well as the tax syndicator are requiring that that tank be removed, and then we’ll test again underneath the tank,” Rafferty said. “We could pull the tank and not even test it as far as the DNR is concerned.”
Perry City Council member and former Superintendent of the Perry Community School District Dr. Randy McCaulley said he recalled many years ago receiving “a letter from the DNR that said, ‘You have an old buried tank here. It’s filled with sand and gravel. This is your notice that it’s completely — it’s been tested for years. It’s off our books. We’re closing it out. It’s done. You don’t have to do anything with it. It’s over and done with.’ And frankly, I just put it out of my mind. I didn’t give it another thought. But, you know, when the DNR signs off on something and says this is not an issue, not a concern, I’m not following how somebody said it had to be taken out.”
Pattee said this sort of conflict is “probably more common than we care to admit,” and he repeated his support for the Newbury project.
“It is kind of a sad commentary when another governing body says we’re not accepting a Department of Natural Resource decision,” McCaulley said.
Perry City Council member Chuck Schott said it is a case in which “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
The council gave what it hopes will be final approval to the revised plan at its Dec. 7 meeting. In the public hearing prior to the vote, Pattee relayed to the council the latest information from rafferty, who was unable to attend.
“They did in fact pull that tank that was a topic of discussion at the last meeting,” Pattee said. “”It’s gone, and they did test the ground underneath it, and it was clean.”