Months after three city councilors proposed starting the tax-deeding process on a massive industrial property in Keene, a council committee recommended a measure Thursday to allow more negotiations. But several councilors also said they would vote against it next week if the property owner doesn’t submit a payment plan.
Tax-deeding allows a municipality to take ownership of a property that’s behind on its taxes, after the owner has been given a chance to pay.
Halfway through a nearly hour-long discussion Thursday, Councilor Terry M. Clark echoed a point many councilors have made in recent months.
“I don’t think the city wants to own that property, and I’m going to surmise that the owner doesn’t want to lose the property,” he said.
But Brian J. Thibeault, the owner of the 20-plus acres at 80 Laurel St., didn’t plead with the committee to let him keep it.
“If you guys feel that you’d like to take the property, it’s not a problem,” Thibeault said. “Take it.”
The committee voted 3-1 to authorize City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon to negotiate with Thibeault about potential land easements on the site. Clark dissented, and Councilor Carl B. Jacobs was absent.
First introduced in February, a proposal to begin the tax-deeding process for the vacant industrial property near Marlboro Street was tabled by Mayor Kendall W. Lane in early April due to ongoing discussions between Thibeault and city staff.
That proposal was revived in mid-May and sent to the finance, organization and personnel committee, which picked up the issue Thursday night after tabling it once more because of a scheduling conflict.
Thibeault bought the site — dubbed the “Kingsbury property” after its longtime former owner, manufacturing firm Kingsbury Corp. — at a foreclosure auction in 2013 for $50,000 and inherited about $670,000 in back taxes, plus interest.
Dragon said about $828,000 is now owed on the property.
The city received a check on May 9 for $100,067.70, Dragon said at a prior meeting, and that money covered the 2016 property taxes. She said Thursday that the city has received a total of around $390,000 since Thibeault bought the site in 2013.
But if the council decides to move forward with the tax-deeding process, the city would get the property as is, including the environmental hazards and contaminants that have been discovered through groundwater testing.
James Phippard, a local land-use consultant working with Thibeault, told the finance committee Thursday that his focus is on attracting large companies and franchises to redevelop and occupy the land long term. As part of negotiations with the city, he said Thibeault has agreed to allow environmental testing on the east side of the site, and said testing in the building for asbestos continues.
He and Thibeault have gotten bids for the cost to demolish the site’s 300,000-square-foot building, according to Phippard, but they can’t raze it until asbestos abatement “is at least well underway.”
Phippard said he’s slated to appear before the city’s planning board June 24 for advice and consultation, and that he feels good about the progress and interest from potential developers.
“If we could start to build some community support, I think that’ll help tremendously,” he said. “All the negative comments we’re getting and negative press we’re getting — I know some of it is deserved, but it never helps when you’re trying to promote a property and redevelop a property, especially in a small community like Keene.”
But Clark said he would not vote on any further negotiations with Thibeault without a payment plan for back taxes. Councilors David C. Richards and Randy L. Filiault, who aren’t on the finance committee but spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, agreed.
Dragon said she had planned to ask the council’s permission to negotiate two easements with Thibeault: One would allow the city to extend Victoria Street, and the other would expand an existing easement along Beaver Brook for work to alleviate flooding.
The value of the transactions for the easements could be credited against Thibeault’s tax debt, if that comes to fruition.
But Richards pointed out that money for the Victoria Street extension was removed from the city’s six-year capital improvement program, and Dragon agreed that funding the project would have to be part of the council’s discussion regarding the easement.
After further debate among councilors, Thibeault spoke at length for the first time, explaining that he bought the site with a tax lien on it and with the environmental contaminants.
“We’re here to develop the property if the city wants to work with us,” Thibeault said.
After the site gets developed, he said, he can pay the taxes.
“I came out here to talk to you guys to see if we could come to some resolution,” he continued. “… I have plenty of other projects throughout New England to work on instead of working on this one, OK? So we want to move forward. We don’t want to come here and get beat up. OK?”
But Clark asserted that he hasn’t seen any good-faith effort.
“The only time anything really happens is when we put the gun to your head, and I just don’t believe that things are going to go forward unless the city has some sort of tax leverage,” he said.
After voting on the recommendation to the council, Councilor Thomas F. Powers asked Thibeault if he’s prepared to make a payment and submit a plan before the council’s meeting next Thursday.
“I think we’re missing the big picture, I really do,” Thibeault said.
He argued that the development could increase the tax base tenfold and bring new life into the area, including retail, brew pubs, a hotel and possibly housing.
He said he’s hired a tax consultant to work with the city, but did not indicate an intent to make a payment or submit a plan by next week.
When Powers told Thibeault and Phippard, “you know what’s going to happen next week,” Thibeault responded that the councilors can take the property if they want to.
“If that’s what you’d like to do, you guys can have the contamination problem, not me,” he said, laughing.
The committee’s recommendation moves to the full council, which meets Thursday at 7 p.m. in City Hall.