Wausau finance director suggests referendum regarding use of

Wausau Finance Director MaryAnne Groat is suggesting a referendum to determine the best use of contaminated property eyed as a potential site for a new facility maintenance shop despite the majority of the council already removing it from consideration.

The suggestion came on the heels of a statement by Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen who said she wants to bring the property, at 1300 Cleveland Ave., back into the mix of potential sites for the Dept. of Public Works project.

“At what point do we allow one or two people to drive the bus?” Rasmussen said, during a June 22 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Committee meeting.

Rasmussen did not say which one or two people she was referring to, but both Dist. 10 Alder Lou Larson and Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian have been vocal opponents of efforts to rezone or repurpose the Cleveland Avenue property and have urged environmental cleanup to residential, rather than industrial, standards.

They are not alone. Residents and other council members have weighed in on the Cleveland Avenue issue multiple times, and a prior discussion on how to zone the property drew significant outcry from people living both in and out of the neighborhood. The property has demonstrated environmental contamination traced to decades of manufacturing operations and was once operated by a business investigated by the state for dumping hazardous waste. Tests showed the property, surrounded largely by residential homes, contains levels of potentially cancer-causing contaminants at as much as four times the industrial standard in some areas.

Larson, who is chair of the Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee, said he was surprised and appalled by the renewed discussion on the property given that Rasmussen herself supported a recommendation from design consultants that the West Street location be pursued as recently as June 9.

Rather than supporting the consultants’ two preferred options for the project, during the June 22 meeting Rasmussen called a prior plan to place the DPW expansion at 1300 Cleveland “a good one” and said using the property could reduce the price tag for taxpayers.

“It’s not two people opposed to this,” Larson told Wausau Pilot & Review. “What Lisa is suggesting undermines what the council has achieved. Bottom line, the citizens of this community have spoken, the council listened and voted appropriately. 1300 Cleveland Avenue is off the table.”

“Put it out to taxpayers,” Groat said, during a Wausau Capital Improvement Committee meeting. “Should that property be reused for city facilities and forego acquisition costs as a result?”

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. 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.

The zoning error prompted significant public pushback, while public comment was largely on the side of restoring the classification to residential status. Several people spoke in person including then-Marathon County Board Dist. 3 Supervisor William Harris, who told the Commission he strongly supported reversing the zoning error in the district he represented and restoring the code to residential after hearing from many residents in the neighborhood.

In April 2021, the council voted unanimously to restore the property’s residential zoning classification for the property. In addition, the City Council in September voted 6-5 to remove the property from a resolution approving a DPW feasibility study for the project.

That vote, Kilian said, was approved by a majority of the council in part because including 1300 Cleveland Avenue would jeopardize a rigorous environmental cleanup on the property “and spit in the face of the public that, through robust input and participation, opposed industrial zoning or expansion there.”

“While, historically, the City appeared to make a habit out of avoiding cleanups and spitting in the face of the public — especially in working class neighborhoods — it is a habit that the City should break, if it has not done so already,” Kilian told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Either the administration agrees with these inappropriate CIP statements or there needs to be much more effective supervision of department heads moving forward — it is one or the other.”

In an email to Wausau Pilot & Review Groat said she doesn’t “know the referendum process” and suggested checking Wisconsin statutes for reference.

Larson said as far as a referendum goes, he suggested to Groat that “we have a referendum for the millions of dollars WOZ will be asking for, for their ‘market rate’ apartments on the former mall site.”

Rasmussen did not respond to an invitation to comment prior to press time.

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