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Wausau plans closed-door session on west-side property

in Investigations/News

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from City Council President Lisa Rasmussen and Economic Development Chair Tom Neal.

By Shereen Siewert

Wausau’s Economic Development Committee on Tuesday will go into closed session to consider plans for a west-side property that has been the subject of significant environmental scrutiny, but it is unclear why a closed session is necessary or what will be discussed.

Last year, the city considered issuing a request for proposals for the property – but that was halted amid environmental concerns. Now, city leaders will go into closed session to discuss the property’s fate – but there’s nothing in the packet about the proposal, except a one-page map.

The agenda for the meeting, planned for 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 17, calls for both open and closed session “Discussion and Possible Action on the Disposition of the Property at 1300 Cleveland Avenue (Old Incubator).” For decades, the property operated as Connor Forest Industries and would later become the site of the city’s business incubator.

Wisconsin’s open meeting law requires that the notice of a meeting specify the subject matter of any closed session contemplated. According to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, closed meeting notices should cite the particular statutory exemption that justifies the closed session and “must be detailed enough to reasonably apprise the public and news media of the subject matter.”

Wausau’s notice cites “deliberating or negotiating the purchase of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session” as the reason for the closed session.

“I’m awaiting input on this item, and will certainly welcome and conduct open session discussion,” wrote ED Committee Chair Tom Neal. “If we go to closed on this, it will only be to discuss any ongoing negotiations.”

The disposition of the property has been a matter of debate for about a year.

In December 2018, members of the economic development committee were presented with a plan to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the property for future use. But after hearing concerns from residents, the committee ultimately recommended a Phase I assessment be completed for the property, which the city acquired in 1986.

A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, commonly referred to as an ESA, is a study that researches the current and historical uses of a property as part of a commercial real estate transaction. The report assesses whether current or historical property uses have impacted the soil or groundwater beneath the property and could pose a threat to the environment and/or human health. If these issues are found, it presents a potential liability for the lender or owner, as well as affecting the value of the property.

Weeks later, Wausau Economic Development Director Chris Schock introduced a Phase I environmental study completed in 2014, a document that had not been brought forward in the previous discussion, asking the committee again to recommend releasing an RFP for development. The study was performed by REI Engineering of Wausau, which sent a representative to answer questions about the report. That report, according to the REI representative, relied on a number of factors including a review of Marathon County land records, documents obtained by the WDNR BRRTS website and interviews with former Wausau Economic Development Manager Megan Lawrence.

But both public officials and a representative of Citizens for a Clean Wausau pointed out that the 2014 report could not be considered complete because hundreds of pages of additional documentation about the environmental history of the site were not publicly available at the time the report was compiled.

During the December 2018 meeting Tom Kilian, a representative of the citizens group, said he did not take issue with the quality of the report but pointed out several examples of issues that were not available to REI in their research four years prior.

Members of the citizens’ group conducted extensive research over the past two years that included uncovering reams of documents that were never entered into the BRRTS website. When the group’s research began in 2018, DNR officials were initially unable to locate any information about potential environmental issues at the site, Kilian told the committee in December 20818.

Months later, DNR officials eventually located a two-foot stack of files related to Connor Forest Industries, some of which revealed potentially explosive information.

Among the findings: In September 1985, the DNR launched a probe into illegally buried hazardous waste at the site that sprang from the discovery of barrels buried at the company’s Laona location. At that time, the DNR sent three representatives to secretly watch activities at the Wausau location.

Later, the DNR would estimate that more than 91,000 gallons of waste had been illegally dumped at the property over four years.

Those facts, the REI representative acknowledged, were not included in the Phase I assessment.

City Council President Lisa Rasmussen, in December 2018, noted that because the city owns the site, officials should take every step available to ensure the property is safe for any and all uses before selling what could be a “potential health hazard.”

“If, someday, there would be houses on it, it must be safe for those residents,” Rasmussen said.

According to a November 1985 Green Bay Gazette news story, “barrels were unearthed between June (1985) and September at seven separate sites, including a shallow pit behind the Connor Forest Industries flooring mill in Laona and the firm’s Wausau mill.” The matter was eventually referred to the Department of Justice because of illegal disposal of hazardous and solid waste, according to media reports, and the company was fined.

Public documents from 1986 connected to the city’s purchase of the property show city officials were concerned about potential liabilities linked to contamination from chemical contaminants that could impact soils and groundwater. Some of the contamination of concern was across the street on the SNE property, including dioxins, documents show.

As part of the purchase agreement, both CFI and SNE agreed to indemnify and hold the city harmless from all liabilities incurred by the purchase. In return, the city agreed to promptly notify SNE of any monitoring or requested or required remedial action resulting from contamination, including dioxins and furans. But in order for SNE’s parent company, Wauleco, to be held liable, officials would have to prove that the contamination is directly related to the company’s past operations.

Members of the committee ultimately decided that more information was necessary before moving forward with issuing a request for proposals for the site.

Now, the committee appears poised to move forward, but there is little to indicate what, if anything, the city will decide.

“I don’t think there is a specific proposal, but there have been inquiries,” wrote City Council President Lisa Rasmussen. “I think they probably want us to decide whether we want to do an RFP or not now that the road is complete if they are seeing some interest in that area.

Wausau Pilot and Review has reached out to Mayor Rob Mielke and Economic Development Director Chris Shock for additional information and will update this story with their responses.

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