The interior of the former Rock Tenn paper mill in Otsego is shown. (Photos provided)

County plans to sell Rock Tenn site

Ryan Lewis (Editor)

Allegan County intends to sell the former Rock Tenn paper mill in Otsego this year.

Commissioner Max Thiele told his fellow commissioners at their Thursday, Feb. 9, meeting that the former mill had been on the county books for too long.

“We’re just getting rid of it,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Storey proposed having a representative of the county board attend the City of Otsego’s next planning commission meeting Feb. 27 to notify them of the county’s intention to sell the property to the lowest bidder.

During a break in the meeting, he said, “My whole point was, we can’t make that decision in a vacuum. We have to bring the citizens of Otsego city and its leaders along or otherwise we’re just asking for trouble.”

Thiele flatly rejected the notion initially, saying asking for local input was a fruitless endeavor.

“I don’t recognize that as viable at all,” Thiele said. “If the City of Otsego thought that that had some economic value on it and they haven’t moved on it yet, recognizing their so-called intrinsic concern, then they’re not going to move on it.”

He asked why the board should further delay selling the property.

“I mean, all it takes is a phone call to the city manager to say, ‘We’re going to get rid of this property by the end of the year. If you’ve got anything you want to do from the standpoint of your jurisdiction, you better hop to it.’”

Commissioner Gale Dugan offered to attend the meeting; Storey, the board’s brownfield board representative could not attend.

Dugan said, “How much are we concerned about community buy-in to whatever happens with this?”

Commissioner Tom Jessup said, “I’m not.”

Thiele said, “Ditto. It’s absolutely not applicable to our intent... The only positive thing is if somebody comes in and buys it. I don’t give a tinker’s toot what they end up doing with it, as long as our rear ends are covered from a liability issue and we effect clear title transfer.”

Ultimately, Storey clarified that meeting with city officials would not impede or delay the county’s efforts to sell the property. Additionally, it would provide a forum to showcase it to potential developers.

Storey said, “It’s a way to say officially to the planning body, ‘We’re done. We’re done owning this property. And we want to get moving.’”

Thiele eventually agreed that the draft sales agreement, together with the environmental assessments of the property and the due care plan for its remediation should be forwarded to the city to ensure officials there understood the requirements of owning such a property.


The mill until now

The reason those requirements are now in place is due to the property’s rocky past.

Rock Tenn ceased operations in 2004, putting 110 out of work.

The company sold the property in 2005 to Romulus-based developer Cogswell Properties LLC. That company stripped materials from the plant for salvage. While it proposed developing the property into a business and industrial center, it stopped paying the taxes on the property in 2007.

After the City of Otsego declined to acquire the land, the county put the land up for auction twice. With no buyers, the county gained possession in February 2011, at which point the back taxes totaled nearly $250,000.

Later that year, a grant-funded survey of the property found approximately 200 drums and other containers of chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined were hazardous. The EPA oversaw their removal in the first half of 2012.

Also in 2012, Cogswell owner Anthony Michael Davis was indicted by a federal grand jury for purposely not properly cleaning up toxic asbestos insulation in the mill’s power house. In 2013, according to the Detroit Free Press, Davis got a 12-month prison sentence and was ordered to pay $168,030 in restitution to the EPA.



County executive director of services Dan Wedge said, “The county has received inquiries about the process to purchase the property.”

He said some offers had included proposals to salvage the remaining steel and hardwood.

Two brownfield redevelopment grants have been used to survey the site since the city passed on buying it, revealing that asbestos contamination was limited to only the power house.

The grants also funded Phase I and Phase II environmental assessments.

As a result of that, the county prepared a due care plan—a list of requirements for remediation of the site—last fall.

Wedge said, “Three potential developers have toured the property and still have express interest,” Wedge said. “Selling contaminated property does require a process to ensure what happened with the prior owner does not repeat itself. The environmental assessments, due care plan, and the sales agreement outline the process and minimum requirements will protect the best interests of the county and limit future liability costs.”

Commissioners also discussed looking into requiring potential developers to take out a bond—effectively a deposit of money—they would be used for cleanup efforts. Wedge estimated the cleanup to cost anywhere between $2 million and $4 million. As the developer conducted its cleanup, it would draw down the funds of the bond, assuring that if the developer abandoned the project the county could use those funds to complete the cleanup.

Otsego city manager Thad Beard said the city had no plans to try to acquire the land.

“I’m not sure it would benefit us,” Beard said. “It still seems like the county has more resources than we do to market it. And their efforts have led to potential buyers contacting us, which we then forward to them.”

He said the city was open to consider any project for the site. In fact, city commissioners, after the county acquired the property, changed the zoning to the most permissive type: mixed planned use development.

“Whatever will go there will still go through the city’s site plan approval process,” Beard said. “They wanted to eliminate any potential obstacle for a potential project; in essence, it allows for any development there upon approval by the city commission.

“Basically, you come in with a plan; we’ll review that.”

Contact Ryan Lewis at or (269) 673-5534.



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