By Shereen Siewert

Members of Wausau’s Plan Commission on Tuesday voted 5-2 to correct a zoning error at a property with demonstrated environmental contamination, a move that – if approved by the full council – would effectively close the door on future industrial uses for the parcel.

The issue came to light after a 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. The study was released earlier this year.

The property was rezoned in November 2018 by the Wausau City Council. Then, the council unanimously supported changing the zoning from industrial to residential on the property, ensuring no further manufacturing operations would be allowed there. That also meant that any environmental cleanup on the property would be held to a more stringent 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. The error prompted new fears that the zoning change could pave the way for future operations by either of two nearby companies – Kolbe & Kolbe and 3M – both of which proposed property developments last year to expand their operations. 

David Piehler, of Weston, spoke on behalf of 3M to ask that the Commission look at the “big picture,” and said that characterizing the rezone as correcting an error is “a little bit simplistic.” 3M is one of two companies that sought to acquire the property in April 2020 and remains interested in a portion of the land.

“There’s no rush to rezone,” said Piehler. “This it is city-owned property and remediation will be different for whatever use you decide.”

A representative from Kolbe & Kolbe, the other company interested in acquiring the property, also spoke Tuesday. Mike Tomscyk, vice-president and treasurer of Kolbe & Kolbe, was sharply critical of efforts to change the property’s zoning to residential, suggesting the move signals lack of support for local businesses.

“There is no urgent need to rezone this property,” Tomscyk said. “Support of local businesses wanting to expand would really be appreciated. Apparently there is a desire to quench that today.”

But public comment taken both before and during the meeting was largely on the side of restoring the zoning change to residential status. Several people spoke in person including Marathon County Board Dist. 3 Supervisor William Harris, who told the Commission he strongly supported reversing the zoning error and restoring the code to residential after hearing from many residents in the neighborhood. The property lies in Harris’ county board district.

Former council members Gary Gisselman and Dennis Smith both spoke to the Commission on Tuesday, each urging the group to reverse the error. Smith suggested several appropriate uses for the land, including turning the parcel into a dog park.

“That little walk-in closet we’ve got for a dog park down there isn’t big enough for a city of 39,000 people and it wouldn’t take a lot of money to remediate that land to use it that way,” Smith said.

Terry Kilian, spokeswoman for Citizens for a Clean Wausau, said the upside of rezoning would ensure the neighborhood’s residents would live in a safer environment rather than worrying about the additional potential risk of environmental hazards.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who represents the district in which the property lies, said there was a tremendous amount of feedback from Wausau residents that indicated overwhelming support for the city to correct the zoning map error back to residential.

“While everyone makes mistakes, including governments, I believe that there is a reasonable, firm expectation from the public that the government promptly and justly corrects its mistakes,” Tom Kilian said. “Therefore, the Plan Commission’s decision last night was not only logical and just, but simply a matter of good governance. At the meeting, both 3M Company and Kolbe & Kolbe opposed and rebuffed the concerns and desires of regular Wausonians who supported this rezoning — because they want to expand their industrial operations on this property — but it is not the government’s role to heed corporate power and influence while dismissing citizens’ voices.”

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who chairs the Plan Commission, was among the five members who voted in favor of rezoning, as did Pat Peckham, Tom Neal, Bruce Bohlken and George Bornemann.

Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman, along with Andrew Brueggeman, were opposed to restoring the residential zoning. The matter now goes to the City Council for final approval.