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Northeast residents deserve answers from Minneapolis about proposed waste facility

The City of Minneapolis website states that construction work for the relocation of the Southside Waste Transfer Station, along with the addition of a new Hennepin County household hazardous waste facility, is expected to begin at 27th and University Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis in the spring of 2012. Over the last year, this proposal has generated considerable opposition and controversy in Northeast Minneapolis. A group of area residents formed the organization ‘Don’t Dump on Northeast’ (DDONE) and has questioned the wisdom of placing such a facility directly adjacent to residences.

The group has also challenged whether the location has the proper zoning. Six city-recognized neighborhood associations have taken official stands against the proposal. City code requires waste transfer stations to have the most intensive (I-3) industrial zoning. However, the proposed site is only zoned I-2 (medium industrial). In response, the city has adopted new rhetoric and now refers to the proposal as a “recycling center.”

In a Sept. 30 Star Tribune article about the court challenge to the zoning that DDONE and 19 individuals (including myself) initiated earlier in the month, City Attorney Susan Segal was quoted as saying, “the city will move to dismiss the lawsuit because no application is yet pending for the facility with the city.” This is a similar line to previous statements of Ward 1 Council Member Kevin Reich, who has said that the review process that the neighborhood groups conducted was premature since the site plan is not yet finalized.

No plan? There seems to be enough of a plan that the city spent approximately $2 million in taxpayer funds to acquire the property earlier this year. Presumably, staff, who would have conducted a due diligence review in advance of the purchase, had some fairly detailed knowledge of the plans for the facility. Enough details about the project were available to have a comprehensive (if flawed) traffic study done some time ago that included detailed projections of the number of vehicles that would use the facility. Enough of a plan for the city to initiate a review process for neighborhood organizations with a first round of informational meetings well over a year ago (and then to quickly try to put the brakes on that process once the extent of neighborhood opposition became clear).

While a final plan may contain a few unknown “bells and whistles” (perhaps a border of native prairie grass and wildflowers? murals? rain gardens?) this is unlikely to change the fundamentals of the plan, which have long been known and were the basis for the city’s decision to acquire the property.

Construction plans, but no basis for complaint?
So, the city is stating on its website that construction is to start next spring at the same time its own lawyers are preparing to state in court that there is no basis for a complaint because there is no application for the facility? What, then, is going on?

Over the last year practically all of the senior city staff responsible for this poorly conceived proposal seem to have left their jobs. The city seems to be reeling and unable to even proceed with the most basic communications or any coherent public statement about this proposal. By its rhetorical redefinition of the proposal as solely a recycling center, it also may well have so boxed itself in that it will be unable to proceed with the project as currently conceived — as would be required for a move of the Southside Station or the involvement of Hennepin County in establishing a hazardous waste facility at the site.

It is time (well past time, actually) for our community to get some answers.

What exactly is the status of the project?
If it is to proceed in the spring of 2012, when exactly is a final site plan going to be ready? Does this proposal still include, as stated on the city’s website, the move of the Southside Transfer Station? If so, how can city staff possibly think that this can be legally justified as just a recycling center? (According to the city’s own statistics, only about a third of the materials at the Southside Transfer Station are recycled). It is worth noting that in a hearing on the zoning issue earlier this year, several City Council members who voted to support the zoning determination stated that they did so on the understanding that this really is to be a recycling (not a waste transfer) facility. Words were said that will surely come back to haunt certain city staff should this proposal actually get to the stage of an application for a required conditional use permit.

What will the review process be?
Once there is a final site plan, what is the process for citizen and neighborhood review going to be? Is our Ward 1 council member committed to a full process of neighborhood review for this project? In light of the stated spring 2012 construction start date, what is the timeline for this review process? If such a process fails to persuade area neighborhood groups to support this proposal, what happens then?

Does the city really want to go to court and claim, with a straight face, that all current citizen and neighborhood opposition, and the legal challenge, are illegitimate because there is “no application for the facility” — at the same time its own website says that construction is to start in a few months? Why not just address the substantive issues of the legal challenge now? After all, even on the chance that the city was to prevail on its argument and get the complaint dismissed, it would at best just be giving itself a short reprieve until a final “rebranded” plan is released. At which time it will again be vulnerable to all of the same well-reasoned arguments about the zoning code that are contained in the current complaint. Unless, of course, it really is on the verge of a major rethinking of the project’s whole concept.

Time to give up on current plan
It’s time for the city (or the few proponents for this who are left among city staff) to face reality, stop wasting their time and our money, and give up on the current plan. The opponents — who have won every neighborhood vote that has taken place in Northeast by substantial margins — aren’t going away. Every step of the process is going to be under intense scrutiny.

We have a strong and compelling legal argument and a substantial majority of our community on our side. We are going to prevail.

Bruce Shoemaker lives in the Holland Neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis.

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