Woeful Building, Suspect Soil but School Board May Buy Former Cafe for the Property

Article excerpt

GREEN COVE SPRINGS -- The old Courthouse Cafe next door to

Clay County School District headquarters is not a real estate

investor's dream. And it could turn into a nightmare for the

School Board.

The two-story wood-frame and masonry building has extensive

termite damage, wood rot, a leaky roof and other structural

defects.

Plus, the quarter-acre site might be contaminated from

underground fuel tanks and waste motor oil stemming from an auto

repair garage and service station that occupied the site from

the early 1920s through the 1940s.

Nonetheless, school district officials are moving ahead with

plans to buy the property at 814 Walnut St. by Nov. 19. The

School Board's recently approved 1997-98 budget contains up to

$160,000 for the acquisition, which school officials say could

be used for additional administrative office, storage or parking

space.

"We're still waiting for some inspection documents and an

appraisal to be completed," Michael Elliott, assistant

superintendent of support services, said last week. "If we buy

it, we would be responsible [for site cleanup costs]. Until we

buy it, somebody other than us would be responsible."

Richard Sykes, a hazardous waste compliance inspector with

the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in

Jacksonville, said the state holds present owners responsible

for cleaning up contamination on their land.

But in many cases, he said, the present owners seek

restitution from previous owners if contamination occurred prior

to the current owner buying the property.

The best policy, Sykes said, is to "make sure it's all clean

before you buy."

If fuel tanks have been underground on the site for 50 to 70

years, Sykes said, there's a good chance that any contaminants

have disappeared by now.

"There are bacteria that actually decompose petroleum

products over a period of time," he said. "Until you've done a

thorough analysis of soil and groundwater, you can't say for

sure."

In addition to a structural survey, inspections are being

performed to determine the extent of hazardous materials like

asbestos and leadbased paint in the building, and whether PCBs

or other contaminants are present in the ground below.

Elliott said acquisition of the site has been a goal of the

school district for "a number of years," long before the

election last year of Superintendent David Owens, whose

father-in-law, D. …