Values to remain low for land in Whirlpool pollution area

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 137 views 

Even though Whirlpool Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Jeff Noel told the Fort Smith Board of Directors last week that the area above a plume of trichloroethylene (TCE) is not a health risk and residents were safe, Sebastian County Assessor Becky Yandell is not prepared to reverse course on lowering property values in the area.

Yandell lowered the values of the properties in May following the disclosure of the TCE plume to the public.

Homes sitting on the plume, also known as the primary area, had land values reduced by 75% and building values reduced by 50%. In all, this affected 55 parcels of land, including 49 residences and three commercial buildings.

Properties just off the plume but bordering the plume zone, referred to by Yandell as "fringe" properties, had land values reduced by 75% and structure values reduced by 25%. Twenty-six parcels were affected in the fringe area. Total values of properties in the affected area declined by 41.28%, from a collective value of $9.831 million to $5.773 million.

According to Yandell, Noel's assertion that the area is safe is incorrect.

"We ready every bit of information. We googled. We looked it up," she said. "We read everything you could read about TCE and that stuff is really nasty. Once it gets under the ground and in the water, it will seep up into your house, like radon gas. I just don't know how they can say that."

She said if if Whirlpool's statements about the safety of the area turn out to be true, the fact that a toxic plume of chemicals is below the properties changes the property owner's ability to turn a profit should they decide to sell.

"I mean, would you go and buy one of those homes, in all honesty? I wouldn't. It has a stigma. If someone is murdered in a house, it has a stigma – a bad stigma."

Even in the absence of TCE, Yandell said Whirlpool's 152 acre site in south Fort Smith was going to result in lower property values.

"As I said, in my opinion, the stigma is there. And the big old Whirlpool building is empty. It has just devalued the property all the way around. I just feel like we really, really needed to give some sort of taxpayer relief because they're not getting it from anyplace else."

Yandell has previously said she consulted with the Faulkner County assessor following an oil spill earlier this year in the city of Mayflower, in addition to information obtained at a seminar on appraising properties following disasters.

Yandell said Monday (Oct. 14) her office had conducted more research to affirm their choice to reduce property values in the area.

"We had to look at other similar situations," she said. "There was a gas station in Polk County in Mena and the gas leaked and there was a big plume there and the Mena assessor lowered the values there. And there was also a big chemical spill in Pine Bluff, and they lowered the values there. We weren't trend setters by any means."

According to Yandell, her office has had no recent contact with Whirlpool. The last contact with Whirlpool took place May 22, when the firm of Cushman & Wakefield e-mailed the assessor's office regarding the properties whose values were reduced.

"My firm, Cushman & (Wakefield), has been engaged by Whirlpool Corporation to assist in working out the contamination problem (which) exists in Fort Smith. I am writing you on behalf of Whirlpool to request a list of the affected properties you have identified. News reports indicate that there are 55 parcels in the contaminated area and 26 in a fringe area," Jim Costigan of Cushman & Wakefield wrote. "I am requesting the list because Whirlpool will need to contact the property owners of affected parcels in the near future."

Speaking to the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Oct. 8, Noel referred to three lawsuits that have now been filed against the company by property owners as preventing him from discussing any possible resolutions with homeowners.

As for Yandell, she is not looking for "war between the assessor and Whirlpool, I'm just trying to help people affected (by the TCE plume)," adding that reassessments are not unusual in the event of common and uncommon incidents.

"If you're sitting there in the living room and the roof caves in, your home isn’t worth as much as it once was,” Yandell said, adding that the office conducts reassessments “all the time.”