By Shereen Siewert

Members of the Wausau City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to restore a residential zoning classification at 1300 Cleveland Avenue, a property with demonstrated environmental contamination traced to decades of manufacturing operations.

Recent tests show the city-owned property in question, once operated by a business investigated by the state for dumping hazardous waste, has levels of potentially cancer-causing contaminants at as much as four times the industrial standard in some areas. The roughly 7-acre parcel is surrounded largely by residential homes.

The property was rezoned from industrial to residential in November 2018 by the Wausau City Council in a unanimous vote. But in 2019, during a city-wide rezoning project, the property was mapped using its historical zoning district, which was industrial. That reversed the 2018 vote.

Dist. 1 Alderman Pat Peckham said city officials have contacted Dept. of Health Services to assess the level of risk the contamination detected on the property poses to residents. Peckham previously requested similar assessments for Riverside Park when residents were fighting for soil testing in the area. Later, testing performed at the park, at 100 Sherman St., showed multiple exceedances of state Department of Natural Resources soil standards.

But Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian, who represents the district in which the property lies, called for action and said while DHS is welcome to give an opinion, a toxicologist’s assessment has “really no relevance to state regulatory standards.”

“With DHS, let them give their opinion,” Kilian said. “But just like Riverside Park, this is an environmental justice area. And what that means is a diverse working-class area. We must use the most protective standards available for remediation and often that is not the DHS….we learned that lesson from Riverside Park.”

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 reversing the zoning error would be the right thing to do.

“Do what’s right,” said Harris, who represents the residents of the district on the County Board. “It’s the will of the people. It’s about the integrity of the process. And at a basic level it’s about maintaining trust in local government.”

Tuesday’s decision to correct the error and restore the residential zoning marks the fourth time in four years that the property has been rezoned, City Planner Brad Lenz told the council.

But, Lenz clarified Tuesday, the decision does not effectively shut the door on any future industrial operations because the council could vote to rezone the property at any time in the future should they choose to do so. Both Kolbe & Kolbe and 3M proposed purchasing the property last year to expand their operations and have expressed ongoing interest in portions of the parcel.