Radar base could become vacation homes

Finland Mn
A cold war-era radar base on a mountain near tiny Finland could become upscale vacation homes and affordable housing. But challenges abound at the Superfund site.
Image courtesy Radomes, Inc.

Halfway between Duluth and Grand Marais, Highway 1 heads west into the wilderness. Ely is about 60 miles from here. But first there's Finland.

It's barely a crossroad, with a community center, a gas station, and a bar. Air Base Road climbs up Lookout Mountain.

Air Base Road winds through deep forest and up Lookout Mountain. The remote cold war radar base -- now a polluted Superfund site -- could be turned into upscale vacation homes and affordable housing.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"It's a very narrow road," says David Abazs as he navigates the road in his hybrid diesel car. "We had a death off this road this past winter."

Abazs and his wife run an organic farm near here. He's concerned about the plans for the mountain.

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At the top, a half-dozen decrepit buildings molder by the side of the road. Steel towers stand like ghosts above the trees.

This is the old Finland Air Force Base. During the Cold War 350 people lived here. They kept an electronic eye on the Soviet Union.

"The main radar station is that building there to your right, a big white box with a circular walkway," says Abazs. "As you get a little higher you'll be able to see Lake Superior, and Wisconsin across the lake."

It's a stunning view. The Sawtooth Mountains stretch to the horizon in all directions -- except where Lake Superior shines like a brilliant turquoise in the distance.

But this mountaintop is not as clean as its surroundings.

David Abazs
David Abazs sits in front of one of the buildings contaminated with lead and asbestos. Abazs would like to have the site cleaned up, but he says it's difficult to reach for fire and other services, and a high-end development would drive up land prices.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"There's a lot of contamination," Abazs says. "Diesel contamination, PCBs. So this is now a Superfund site."

The Air Force sold the property. The current owners want to redevelop this land and turn it into vacation homes and affordable housing. They plan a total of 68 houses.

Finlandia LLC is owned by a Twin Cities family. They'll have to remove barracks and other buildings contaminated with lead and asbestos. Then they plan to renovate the 1960s era tract homes and sell them as affordable housing. Finally, they'll sell lots at the top of the mountain, for luxury vacation homes.

They drilled a well, which was quickly contaminated with solvents. Now the mountainside is dotted with monitoring wells. They're designed to track the flow of the solvents through the bedrock, to make sure the solvents don't contaminate nearby household wells.

The company had to drill a new, clean, well.

They also installed a new septic system, which didn't work properly. So they revamped the old septic system.

David Abazs has mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, he'd like to see the pollution cleaned up. On the other hand, he wasn't happy when Lake County changed the zoning from ten-acre lots to 2-acre lots to accommodate the developers.

He says 68 new houses would more than double the existing population of Finland. He says a lot of people want new development.

Fire numbers
Three hundred and fifty people lived here when the base was active. Now the buildings are deteriorating and the ground is contaminated.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"People have been leaving the area; they want their schools filled," he says. "But this development isn't going to fill the schools; it's going to fill the retirement homes. Because these people who are coming are going to be well off, without children, having a summer place."

And every new development drives up the cost of land.

"We can't buy land anymore, because our economy is on a different scale," he says. "This is third world-first world approach. The reality is locals, unless they've sold a million-dollar piece of land, can't buy land for their kids." Meanwhile, people at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are leery of the project, because of the company's track record.

The MPCA fined Finlandia about $140,000 for that septic system that didn't meet specifications. The company didn't pay the fine for five years, and with penalties it grew to nearly half a million dollars.

Steve Scallen, one of the family members behind Finlandia, says he fought the fine because it was based on a technicality. He says the septic system didn't cause any environmental damage.

"It took five years for everybody to get together and talk about it and reach a settlement," he says.

Scallen filed for bankruptcy, and the Pollution Control Agency settled for $40,000.

Scallen says the family has already sunk about a million dollars into the property, and they're still committed to their plan.

Eric Rottier
Eric Rottier says Finlandia LLC is committed to a thorough clean-up of the site. Finlandia asked for a re-zone to allow 68 homes, rather than the 14 that existing zoning would allow, to help pay for development expenses.
Image courtesy Eric Rottier

His son-in-law, Eric Rottier says the mountain is too beautiful to just sit there with its sagging buildings and contaminated soil.

"It's a question of, is it better off staying as it is, or developing it and returning it to a natural setting, with large lots, and affordable housing, and a cleaned-up site," he says. "I think everyone has unanimously said that's better than leaving it how it is."

Lake County has sent a letter to Rottier, laying out conditions the company must meet before it gives final approval to the project.