ROXBURY, N.J. - He still thinks the former Hercules Powder Co. site would be a great place for a casino, but few people agree. So Morris County freeholder candidate Mitchell Horn is floating a new idea: Turn Hercules into a solar energy farm.
The 1,200-acre chunk of land in the heart of Roxbury seems to beckon Horn's imagination with its development potential. He, and other politicians, acknowledge hurdles exist, particularly the fact that a century of unregulated explosives manufacturing on the land means the property is likely to need costly environmental remediation.
Nevertheless, it's just sitting there; a potential boon for employment and tax ratables, they say, with proximity to Route 80, Route 46 and railroads. And so, his idea for a casino denounced, Horn now says that, if elected, he would push to have the site considered by companies that build "clean energy" solar installations.
"I'm the ideas candidate," said the Montville Democrat. "The property is for sale and it's been for sale for a long time. The way I understand these types of commercial solar projects, the only way they are economically viable is if the solar provider can purchase the property at a significant discount. That's one reason why I think this site is a potential candidate; the only person who could buy this site is going to want to buy it for a huge discount considering the huge risk, the environmental unknowns."
But buried bombs and other potential underground surprises aren't the only pitfalls facing Horn's idea. The words "solar farm" tend to raise the hackles of residents in Roxbury, a town still smarting from the terrible outcome of a plan that involved erecting solar panels at the site of the former Fenimore Landfill.
To prepare the long dormant dumpsite for a proposed solar panel farm, construction debris was brought as fill material in 2012. Decomposing wallboard particles in the fill soon filled much of Roxbury with putrid hydrogen sulfide, a debacle that pulled the plug on the solar panel project and instead forced a seizure of the property by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Horn said he's aware of the Fenimore matter. "I know Roxbury had this solar project in mind at the Fenimore Landfill and, for whatever reason, that project failed," he said. "Could it be possible we could … try again, this time at the Hercules site?"
Horn said he's had conversations with the real estate company that's trying to sell the fenced-in property. He said he's "getting two different stories" about the property's pollution problem.
"The Realtor says there's a ton of rumors about site, but don’t believe the rumors; it's not as bad as they make it sound," Horn said. "Then I called the DEP and requested … the site remediation report. While on phone, they didn’t have that same upbeat tone. They said, `This site has had a long history. You need a professional to read this report.'"
While serious about his idea, Horn is not without a sense of humor. "I can totally see the public being nervous about this type of proposal," he said. "You have, potentially, munitions or gunpowder in the ground. Then you're going to build a solar farm with electric currents on top?"
On the surface, that "seems like a high-risk endeavor," agreed the candidate. "But there's an entire industry built around environmental cleanups. If you get the right people there that do the due diligence and analysis … that's what I'm proposing. We get some people involved that know what they're doing and can provide an unbiased assessment."
Roxbury Councilman Bob DeFillippo, one of the main critics of Horn's first idea (calling it "harebrained"), said Horn contacted him and apologized after floating the casino balloon. "He apologized for not checking with local officials first," said DeFillippo, whose wife, Morris County Freeholder Director Kathryn DeFillippo, is one of the Republican candidates up for re-election being challenged by Horn.
"I'm a little surprised he's now throwing around another half-baked idea," DeFillippo said. "He sent me an apology after the casino idea … I got the sense he understood it doesn't make any sense to have these wild ideas without contacting our zoning and master plan (people). Just throwing out crazy ideas doesn’t seem a thoughtful way to proceed."
The councilman suggested Horn "should leave the future development of Roxbury to the people who live in Roxbury and understand the community and understand the zoning."
But even DeFillippo's wife is not immune to the call of the Hercules tract. Several people who attended a recent meeting of the local GOP club said the freeholder told the gathered Republicans the Hercules property might be an ideal place for Amazon to build a distribution facility.
Asked about that, Kathy DeFillippo acknowledged meeting with some Amazon representatives as part of her role as a member of the New Jersey Transportation Authority executive board. "Of course, I handed them my business card," she said. "If Amazon is willing to expand in New Jersey, I said Roxbury has the property … I never specifically spoke to the Amazon reps about any particular property."