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Fire cleanup continues as Norwood clears legal hurdles

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NORWOOD - The village now owns the site of the former Norwood Elementary School on 26 Prospect St., finally removing the last of the legal roadblocks preventing the cleanup of debris from a suspected arson fire in 2009 that reduced the building to rubble.

After the fire, village leaders discovered much of the debris was contaminated by asbestos. Removing the asbestos would have cost about $325,000. Instead, the village received a site-specific variance from the state in February, which allowed it to remove the contaminated material and dispose of it off-site, for significantly lower cost.

The village began clearing the most dangerous debris this summer, removing about 80 percent of the most hazardous material from the site. Debris containing asbestos was disposed by the Development Authority of the North Country. The work was completed for about $20,000.

The front wall of the school still stands, as does a new wing that was added in the 1980s.

Neighbors say the remaining cleanup cannot come soon enough. The village was first prompted into action by a petition calling for the debris to be removed, which received over 100 signatures last year.

“There’s still a huge amount left to be done, honestly,” said Robin S. Wilkinson, who lives directly across from the ruined school. She described the site as both an eyesore and a safety hazard, with graffiti and broken windows a reminder that although school is not in session, kids keep coming back.

“I’m very worried about the vandalism,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “I’m worried that the kids are going to be hurt.”

Since the fire, the village made repeated attempts to contact I.B. Holdings Inc., a Florida company that owns the property the school is built on, to recoup at least part of the cleanup cost.

“They were not even communicating with us for several years,” Norwood Mayor James H. McFaddin said.

Finally, earlier this year, village leaders were able to reach I.B. Holdings. The company agreed to pay $18,700 for the first phase of cleanup and signed away the deed to the 3.1 acres the school is built on.

The village will need to pay back-taxes on the property, about $3,000, or negotiate a deal with St. Lawrence County.

Budget-permitting, the remaining debris will be cleared away next summer, Mr. McFaddin said. The new wing, which was left largely intact after the fire, will be gutted in 2014 in the third and final phase of cleanup, but will remain standing.

“I know they have made progress, and I know they have plans for it, but I don’t think it’s going fast enough for anyone,” said Denise diVincenzo, who lives on Prospect Street near the site. “There’s a lot of hoops to jump through.”

Once cleanup is completed, about one acre along Prospect Street will be turned into a park. The old stone fountain in the school’s front yard will remain standing as part of a memorial to the school, which was built in 1885.

A committee will be formed to determine what to do with the rest of the property, including the wing of the school that will remain standing.

A baseball field is still maintained in the property behind the ruins, and neighbors say they hope the village keeps it intact.

It would be nice to keep that recreation area,” Ms. diVincenzo said.

According to the mayor, the future of the site depends on whatever is best for the village.

“It could be a housing development, it could be just about anything,” Mr. McFaddin said.

“It’s a great opportunity.” “We want to make sure that it’s put to the best use for the majority of our citizens.”

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