Zoning mess 

Northside seeks deep cleaning for toxic site

A 19-acre weed patch languishing on Missoula’s Northside once belonged to the bustling White Pine Sash (WPS) mill, which churned out wooden window and door parts from the 1920s through 1996. Today, that same stretch of land—an embattled Superfund site—lies at the crux of a debate over cleanups, zoning, and the hopes of a neighborhood.

Amid the highly publicized, ongoing cleanups at Milltown Dam and the old Champion Sawmill site in the heart of town, neighbors say a rezoning request underway on a portion of former WPS lands could reduce the amount of cleanup ultimately required by state Superfund officials. Without a first-rate cleanup, they fear they’ll have a second-rate neighborhood.

The worries stem from a rezoning request that will be heard by the Missoula City Council April 28. Scott Street Partners, owners of the parcel west of Scott Street between Rodgers and Palmer streets, have asked the city to rezone the land from “Industrial” to “Light Industrial,” which would eliminate the potential for residential development on the site without changing the permitted industrial uses. Scott Street Partners’ spokesman Mike Stevenson says the request isn’t sparked by any particular development plan, but rather by a need to make progress on an investment property they’ve paid taxes on for nine years.

“We’d like to take this piece of blighted property and move forward with it,” Stevenson said at an April 1 hearing before the Missoula Planning Board, which rejected the rezoning 7-2. The matter now moves on to a final vote before the City Council.

Scott Street Partners’ plans have stalled for the last several years while the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has worked with Huttig Building Products—the party responsible for remediating the WPS property—to assess onsite pollution and plan the cleanup. The main contamination at the site seeped from tanks containing the wood preservative pentachlorophenol (known as penta), although unacceptably high levels of both penta and dioxin, another potent toxin, have emerged at various spots throughout the property.

The DEQ’s Colleen Owen says the agency is developing a comprehensive plan to address cleanup on the 40-acre WPS site that will be released for public comment in early 2009. In regard to Scott Street Partners’ 19 acres, she says Huttig has so far only submitted a proposal to test and clean it up to the DEQ’s standards for commercial (in other words, non-residential) property.

Under the current zoning on the property, which allows for residences, that cleanup plan isn’t adequate. But if the property were rezoned, Owen says the DEQ would likely let Huttig proceed with a commercial cleanup. The difference between the two standards is slight but real: Owen says dioxin levels must test below 30 parts per trillion (ppt) for residential properties, and below 200 ppt on commercial lands. Due to groundwater contamination concerns, the penta standard of 1,100 parts per billion applies to commercial and residential properties alike.

At the Planning Board hearing, Huttig representative Bryan Douglass said the company sold its land to Scott Street Partners at a deep discount because it included a deed restriction prohibiting residential development. As such, he said, “Huttig has no intention of going to the extra effort it might take to clean it up for residential uses.”

Stevenson says Scott Street Partners won’t take on the extra cleanup, either, and warns if the rezoning doesn’t go through, “nothing is going to happen on this property for a long, long time.” He also raises the issue of 12 city-owned acres immediately south of Scott Street Partners’ parcel that were rezoned as “Light Industrial” in 1994. Nine of those acres have been cleaned to commercial standards, while a three-acre park is being cleaned to residential standards. “If the city can do it [rezone], why can’t we?” he asks. 

Stevenson says a cleanup that meets the DEQ’s commercial standards will adequately protect the property’s users and neighbors. Contamination concerns only bolster his case that zoning should bar residential development, he adds. “If we thought we were putting Northside neighbors at risk, that’s the last thing we would do,” he says.

However, widespread opposition to the rezoning has emerged in the neighborhood, as voiced by residents, the Northside/Westside Federated Neighborhood Council, and the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC).

Bob Oaks, NMCDC director, says a debate over whether the site is appropriate for housing misses the meat of the real argument, which is that the site should be cleaned thoroughly, regardless of its future uses.

“I think the Northside residential neighborhood deserves a cleanup that makes that property available for whatever use is economically and socially best,” he says. “I think we need to hold the primary responsible party accountable for the cleanup required by law.”

While both Huttig and Scott Street Partners say rejection of the rezoning will mean less—not more—cleanup due to unresolved liability, Owen at DEQ says that’s not strictly true.

“Ultimately, if there is no determination that [the property] will be only used for commercial purposes, DEQ will require it to be cleaned up to residential standards because we won’t know what the uses will be,” she says.

And although Oaks and other rezoning opponents recognize the potential problems ahead for Scott Street Partners officials—who must rely on complex DEQ Superfund processes—Oaks points out that they shouldn’t be surprised by the difficulties. After all, spokesman Stevenson spent 17 years as president of Envirocon, the firm now handling the Milltown Dam cleanup. Another partner, Kris Kok, is currently vice president of Envirocon.

“People who do Superfund cleanups for a living should know they’re opening a can of worms when they buy a Superfund site,” Oaks says.
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