By Shereen Siewert

City officials on Wednesday will consider whether to allow the public to weigh on on whether to correct a zoning error at 1300 Cleveland Avenue, a property with demonstrated environmental contamination traced to decades of manufacturing operations.

In November 2018, members of the Wausau City Council unanimously approved a zoning change on the property from industrial to residential, ensuring no further manufacturing operations would be allowed there. Members of the council, after becoming aware of the environmental history and challenges posed at the property, overwhelmingly supported the zoning change, which also meant that any environmental cleanup on the property would be held to a more stringent standard.

But neighborhood residents might not have the chance to formally weigh in on whether to keep the erroneous zoning in place. The new zoning created in error would pave the way for more manufacturing on the property, rather than following the council’s earlier decision to prevent it. The city’s Plan Commission will decide on Wednesday whether a public hearing will be scheduled.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian said the matter is being brought forth to correct a zoning map error the city made and recently acknowledged, which resulted in the unintended rezoning fro residential back to an industrial standard.

According to a memo by City Planner and Interim Development Director Brad Lenz, the property was reclassified in 2019 during a city-wide rezoning project. Lenz, in his memo, said the property had been mapped using its historical zoning district, which was industrial.

“This was a mapping error that was not discovered until after the citywide map had been adopted (in 2019),” Lenz wrote.

Consequentially, the residential standard approved by the council no longer applies. That information is raising red flags for residents in the neighborhood, many of whom have fought for years for environmental remediation on the property.

“This significant city mistake will now likely lead to less rigorous cleanup standards (industrial standards instead of non-industrial standards) being required by the DNR for the site’s remediation, Kilian said. “If the city exploits this error rather than corrects it, the oversight also paves the way for 3M Company’s desired and planned expansion on the property which would have had to otherwise go through the standard error-free rezoning process — no doubt, facing immense neighborhood objections as it did — had the city not made this ‘mistake.’”

The results of an environmental study released in January show significant contamination at the site, which was acquired by the city in 1986. The 360-page Phase II study, performed by GEI Consultants, noted levels of potentially cancer-causing contaminants at as much as four times the industrial standard in some areas of the property. Members of the Plan Commission in November 2018 agreed that the property seemed a better fit for residential development, but more recent staff memos included in city meeting packets recommend exploring industrial development.

In an email to council members, Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman reminded officials that two neighboring manufacturing companies – Kolbe & Kolbe and 3M – previously proposed acquiring the property. Remediation cost estimates for residential, retail or commercial use, Lindman said, will require “much more testing and more time to prepare.”

Kilian said there is no valid reason why the Plan Commission would object to a public hearing to correct the “city’s profound and acknowledged zoning error.”

“Authorizing the public hearing is the only ethical decision and option on the table,” Kilian said.

The Plan Commission meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16 in Council Chambers at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. See the addendum to the agenda here.