Workers from Renaud Bros. in Vernon demolish the remains of the McNeill’s Brewery on Dec. 3, 2022.
Jeff Potter/Commons file photo
Workers from Renaud Bros. in Vernon demolish the remains of the McNeill’s Brewery on Dec. 3, 2022.

Brattleboro will take McNeill land

The town will rescind its claim for cleanup expenses in the aftermath of the 2022 fire that claimed the life of brewmaster Ray McNeill

Nearly a year to the day after fire destroyed McNeill's Brewery and took the life of its iconic owner, Reagin "Ray" McNeill, the Selectboard voted on Dec. 5 to authorize Town Manager John Potter to sign a purchase and sale contract to pass the property to the town, pending an environmental inspection.

In return, the town will release its current claim against the estate to recoup expenses post-fire.

Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow explained the town had been responsible for putting out the fire and demolishing the building, which was deemed a public safety hazard by the day after the Dec. 2, 2022 fire. It was razed on Dec. 3, 2022.

"Through the estate moving forward, there's a way for the town to potentially recoup some of that loss," Goodnow said.

Town Counsel Robert "Bob" Fisher noted the McNeill estate is insolvent, meaning its liabilities exceed its assets, which amount to the lot of land and "a couple thousand in a bank account," Fisher said. The land, according to town assessors' records, is worth $45,000.

"The town is unlikely - very unlikely - to recover its full claim as against the estate," Fisher said, adding the proposal to sell the land to the town in exchange for release of the town's claim against the estate was made by McNeill's estate lawyers.

Fisher said taking the deal "gives you options," as the lot is next to the parking garage and the land that wraps around it. The town could, of course, opt to sell the site, ultimately.

The transaction is contingent on the environmental inspection, which could consist of several tiers and which Fisher said is fairly standard in commercial real estate transactions.

The lawyer said he would confer with the town Planning Department about who might perform the inspection and when. He said at present he is thinking it will be several months out.

Fisher also said the first phase of the inspection would be to review the history of the site and neighboring parcels. A second phase of testing, which might require drilling for contaminants/hazardous material, could then be recommended. If a problem is found, the contract could be terminated, Fisher said.

In March 2020, with Covid spreading, McNeill had closed the pub he opened in the late 1990s, but his daughter Eve Nyrhinen told The Commons right after the fire that her father had plans to reopen and had continued to brew.

Fire Chief Leonard Howard explained at the time that McNeill had been told in June 2022 that the building was unsafe and that if a fire broke out, Howard would not put others' lives at risk to enter the structure.

Nyrhinen also noted that the building had not passed its regular inspection, a fact underscored in a press release from the Brattleboro Fire Department on Dec. 5, 2022 that included both an engineering report from Stevens & Associates from that previous June and McNeill's acknowledgement of that report.

"Basically, the 200-year-old wooden building was not designed for literal tons of brew tanks and equipment," Nyrhinen said. "I don't know if it was officially condemned or all-but-condemned, but he was not allowed to reopen to the public. He was working with a guy named Bill to try to repair and restore the building but he had a limited budget and the work was going much more slowly than he had hoped.

"He was told he needed to move out for his own safety, that if there were a fire, the crew wouldn't be able to go in to rescue him due to the instability of the building. There hadn't been a fire in his 30-ish years there and he had an extensive sprinkler system, and he himself wasn't worried about the structural stability, so he stayed. He was planning on rebuilding with an outdoor patio and a barbecue. A new, better, McNeill's."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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