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Willmar City Council discusses status of mercury-contaminated site on S.W. side

The Ace Sign Company building on 14th Street Southwest could possibly be reused for commercial purposes despite a low level of mercury from destruction of fluorescent light bulbs at the site. Nearly 1,000 pounds of fluorescent light bulbs have been removed from the building. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- A former sign company site contaminated with a low level of mercury from destruction of fluorescent light bulbs could possibly be reused for commercial purposes as long as the soil is not disturbed, says a city official.

Nearly 1,000 pounds of fluorescent light bulbs were removed from the former Ace Sign Company site, located in the 300 block of 14th Street Southwest. The business closed several years ago and the property was cleaned up by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency due to mercury from the light bulbs.

The property is small, measuring 70 feet deep by 90 feet wide. Kandiyohi County is extremely concerned about future use because the site is in tax forfeit status and the county has no options for public use, said Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services.

The site can't be used for residential purposes and there's no reason for the next-door homeowner to buy the site, Peterson told the Willmar City Council Monday night.

"We're going to have to look at something unique in order to maintain the use of the property and to make sure it doesn't just grow up in weeds and become an eyesore,'' he said.

The site is now zoned R-2 for residential purposes. The sign company operated there as a legal, nonconforming use, said Peterson. He said nothing allowed in the current zoning district would be a suitable use for the property.

Peterson said he was contacted by several people who had be interested in using the property for a contractor shop, parking two vehicles outside and possibly storing drywall materials inside the building.

"It's probably the least intense use you could come up with for that site,'' he said. "It would be even less intense than even having it be redeveloped as residential purposes, which is impossible under the terms of the agreement that the county has with the MPCA for the property,'' he said.

The status of the site was discussed last week by the council's Community Development Committee and a report of the meeting was presented by chairman Bruce DeBlieck.

Peterson suggested the Planning Commission consider a conditional use permit for the site. If anyone applied for that conditional use permit, all neighbors within 350 feet of the property would be notified for a hearing, he said.

Council member Steve Ahmann said 1,000 pounds "was a lot of pounds of fluorescent light bulbs.'' Ahmann asked how many sign companies operate in Willmar and what can be done to prevent a similar situation.

Peterson said the company operated for so long as a commercial or industrial site that proper vigilance wasn't paid to the property, nor had the city received any complaints. Peterson said more of the bulbs were stored behind the building, where the main pile was cleaned up.

He said the threat of mercury contamination diminishes because mercury is a volatile compound and dissipates if exposed to air. He said MPCA has determined the mercury does not pose a significant threat to the reuse of the site unless it would be used for a residential use.

Other sign companies do not accumulate any product on site. It's delivered to the landfill and all fluorescent bulbs go to the recycling facility, said Peterson.

Council member Rick Fagerlie asked if the site could be used as a storm water detention pond.

Peterson said the suggestion is an option and said it's a question he can investigate.

The committee also discussed increasing guide distribution at Adult Basic Education classes, through Main Street Willmar, to real estate agents, at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building, Heartland Community Agency Action, and at cultural resource centers.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150