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St. Paul voters could decide future of Ford plant development

St. Paul

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St. Paul voters could decide future of Ford plant development
Elections specialist Kristine Grill looks over a box of petitions submitted by opponents of the city's plan for the Ford plant site, as elections assistant Emily Myers looks on.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The battle over the future of the 135 acre site of the Ford plant in St. Paul could be going to voters.

A petition submitted Monday could put a hold on the city's existing plan, and ignite a year-long battle over rebuilding one of the state's premiere redevelopment opportunities.

The City Council approved what it called a zoning and public realm plan for the site in September after months of debate and some stiff opposition from among people who live near the site. The plan is a rough draft for about $1.3 billion of potential development over the next 20 years, including housing, commercial space and parkland.

"We were kind of shocked and concerned about the level of density, the lack of green space, the building heights, and that the pollution had not been re-mediated prior to handing to Ford on a silver platter everything they wanted," said Jean Hoppe, one of the organizers of the petition drive.

She says she and her husband moved to St. Paul in part because of the prospect of what might get built at the site of the former truck plant.

But like some others who live nearby, they didn't like the plan the city settled on.

Supporters of the plan say it could bring as many as 7,000 more residents to Highland Park, create more than 1,000 jobs and lead to additional transit options. They say it's key to keeping St. Paul growing and bringing more tax base to the city.

Opponents say it wasn't hard to find people who want to put the plan to a city wide vote.

"It speaks to the deep level of concern within the community. We had over 100 volunteers working on this, and by and large people we talked to were very supportive of our effort to put this up for a referendum," said Charles Hathaway, another opponent of the plan.

Elections officials will count the signatures over the next week and a half and will then forward a recommendation to the city council.

Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said the petition would need 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the last mayoral election. The question is: which mayoral election?

"If we're using the election for mayor that occurred in 2013, that number is less than 2,500," Mansky says. "Of course, if they want to use the election that occurred (this month), that number would be much higher."

That number would be about 4,900. Petition organizers told elections officials they were turning in just over 3,000.

The City Council will initially decide how to determine that requirement, and council president Russ Stark indicated Monday that council members are waiting for a legal opinion from the city attorney. Opponents of the city's Ford site plan say they're prepared to fight out that interpretation in court.

If the petition is ultimately successful, the city council could either call a special election or put the question to St. Paul voters on the 2018 ballot.