What's next for Azalea residents after Raytheon settlement?

ST. PETERSBURG — For three years, residents of the city's Azalea neighborhood lived under the cloud of knowing a toxic plume was spreading beneath their homes.

They feared the pollution could make them sick. They were convinced it was contributing to declining property values.

Last week, one chapter of the ordeal finally ended. Residents of the west-side neighborhood near Tyrone Square Mall settled their lawsuit with Raytheon Co., which owns the facility the plume originated from.

"This has been such a long, drawn-out battle," said James Schattman, president of the Crossroads Neighborhood Association. "I would say probably people are weary, they're tired."

But they aren't ready to completely abandon the issue.

Since the settlement was announced, the neighborhood has been buzzing about something else: What about that settlement money?

According to court records, experts determined the plume does not pose any health risks and isn't responsible for plunging home values. Raytheon did agree, however, to give homeowners in the plume area, which extends out from 1501 72nd St. N, $2,500, and condo owners $250. The company, in court documents, said it's providing the funds for home improvement as part of its "corporate citizenship."

"I've been deluged with calls," said Dominick Griesi, head of the Azalea neighborhood association. "People want to know what's next."

A meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Azalea Baptist Church will provide more information.

Pensacola attorney Brian Barr, one of the many lawyers who worked on the case on behalf of Azalea residents, said the settlement isn't automatic. Residents will have to opt-in, he said, and be required to sign a waiver giving up their right to any future claims against Raytheon.

Officials have been working for several days to determine which homeowners will be eligible for checks, he said.

"We're working on what the total number is right now," Barr said. "I think at the end of the day it ends up being around 350 single family homes and about 100 condominiums."

That's many less than the more than 1,000 households once thought to be affected when the battle between the neighborhood and the company began in 2008.

That was when residents found out about the pollution from the facility, which Raytheon bought from a company called E-Systems in 1995. Company, state, and local officials had known about the plume as early as 1991.

"We were all extremely unsettled," said longtime resident Nancy Sher, the lead plaintiff in the suit against Raytheon. "It weighed heavily upon us. It was a stigma."

Sher and others said although the lawsuit didn't end the way they expected, they're happy to get something — and to get rid of the stigma of living in a "toxic" neighborhood.

Raytheon, they noted, still has to clean up the plume. The state approved a plan for that last month.

"We lost the lawsuit. What are you going to say?" Schattman said. "I think most people are going to take the money and run. ... There are a lot of people who need the money."

Schattman believes he lives in the plume area and may be eligible for the settlement.

He wants to hear more about the deal.

"I'm wavering on the waiver," he said, "until I hear what the settlement is all about."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

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There will be a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Azalea Baptist Church, 7900 22nd Ave. N, for homeowners who live in the plume area.

What's next for Azalea residents after Raytheon settlement? 06/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 7:33pm]

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