Saturday, July 19, 2008

Concord homeowners want Cowell smokestack demolished without an environmental review

CONCORD — Death could be near for a 244-foot monolith that has marked the city's skyline for the past seven decades.

The Cowell smokestack, built in 1934 and considered a historic treasure in Concord, is falling apart. Chunks of concrete plunge to the ground weekly. No one mows the lawn around it anymore, for fear of getting clocked in the head.

People living around the stack — those responsible for its upkeep — have been telling the city for years the thing needs to be torn down. It would take $4 million to restore it, and $1 million to demolish it. The residents can't afford the former. The City Council will take up the issue July 28.

For the council, the issue is technical: Must the Cowell Homeowners Association commission a costly environmental impact report before demolishing the stack? If it is in imminent danger of falling down, state law may not require the study.

"Our position is that this thing is basically a liability," said association president Don Berger. "If we have to do this EIR, that could take a year, and that's just too long to wait."

He said the association's experts, along with a city engineer, have determined that not only are pieces falling off, but the foundation underneath is unstable.

Mayor Bill Shinn said the city cannot afford to pitch in money to help restore the tower or tear it down. And there are no federal grants available, which means demolition will likely happen — Advertisementby building scaffolding around the stack and taking it down piece by piece.

"But we're thinking we can come up with a compromise that will work for the association, and that won't be a huge expense to them," Shinn said. The environmental report, he said, could cost more than $100,000.

The monthly homeowner association dues are $120 a month, including $31 per household for a smokestack fund. There are 1,062 households paying in, so it would cost an additional $1,000 per household to demolish the tower — or more if an EIR is required. That's on top of $250,000 the association has spent on its own studies over the year.

The Planning Commission ruled in February that the association must do the environmental study. If the council decides the stack is in danger of falling on its own and the EIR is not required because of that emergency, the issue will go back to the planning commission for the demolition approval. Demolition would happen five or so months after hiring a contractor.

The Cowell Lime and Cement Co., which built the stack, closed in the early 1970s and sold the land to developers.

Leaders in Villa Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, are dealing with the same issue — the 217-foot-tall Ovaltine smokestack, built as part of the former Ovaltine factory there, is also unstable. There, the city is considering taking over maintenance of the stack, possibly saving it. It is surrounded by a condominium project built after the factory closed in the 1980s.

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