Ramsey County has decided to buy 427 acres of the most polluted land in the county, hoping to spark long-delayed redevelopment in Arden Hills.
Commissioners voted 5-2 to pledge $30 million toward the purchase of a portion of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site. Most of that, about $24.5 million, would go to clean up the site, with the costs credited toward the purchase price.
The acreage is part of the largest Superfund site in the state, but also one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the Twin Cities. The site of an ammunition factory for much of the last century, it's been surplus federal land since production ended there nearly a decade ago. It's also littered with the debris of arms manufacturing and testing.
"The contaminants of concern today are primarily the lead, and the chlorinated solvents, the industrial solvents," said Amy Hadiaris, a hydro geologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "There are what I call some historical contaminants of concern, that really we consider to be resolved. And the depleted uranium is one of them."
The agreement will give Ramsey County and Arden Hills title to a tract of land along Interstate 35W stretching from Highway 96 nearly to County Road I. They hope to redevelop the the area with an eye toward eventually selling it to private owners and putting it back on the tax rolls.
It's at least the fourth try at reclaiming the space. Arden Hills unsuccessfully tried a mixed-use development there five years ago. It was also considered as a spot for a postal distribution center. And the Vikings signed a deal last year to build a stadium there, only to end up back in Minneapolis and the site of the Metrodome. But Ramsey County has continued to pursue acquisition of the parcel.
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Arden Hills Mayor David Grant said the city is hoping to kick off a market study of the area to find out what would best fit.
"We're probably going to find the scenario with businesses along Highway 35W, County Road 10 and Highway 96, and homes behind the businesses, probably a 50-50 relationship there," said Grant. "To us, this means a great deal -- it's always been our desire to get that cleaned up and redeveloped. It's a big portion of our city."
All told, the site of the ammunition plant, its testing range and storage area make up about a third of his city. Much of it is still off-limits, set aside as a National Guard training area.
Ramsey County had asked the state to finance part of the acquisition earlier this year, as the Department of Employment and Economic Development was doling out nearly $50 million in economic development bonding money. Even though that request did not make the cut, Commissioner Tony Bennett said they will continue to pursue state funding.
"We need some road help on the outside [of the site,]" said Bennett. "694 and 35W needs to be improved. We need some road money and cleanup money."
Hadiaris, the hydro geologist, said it is possible people may be living on the plant site in a few years.
"Really, anything's possible out there. We have a variety of cleanup options. For example, if there's going to be residential use at a property, we want to make sure it's the highest level of cleanup, cleanup to our most conservative risk-based standards," she said.
The purchase came with some objections. County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt of White Bear Lake didn't like the use of solid waste funds, which are collected from garbage bills and meant to divert routine waste out of landfills, to help pay for some costs of the demolition.
Commissioner Janice Rettman called it "mission creep" for the county, and a risk to taxpayers.
"It is... a rescue mission pass for the [federal government's] flagrant disregard for the people, by not putting boots on the ground and cleaning up the environmental hazard that they created," she said.
But most members of the County Board supported the plan. Commissioner Bennett pointed to the proximity of high-tech businesses already in the area, including PAR Nuclear, Medtronic and St. Jude. He said a robotics initiative would be a good fit for the area.
Commissioner Rafael Ortega said he hoped to woo a large corporate presence to the site to get the land back on the property rolls.
"What people fail to realize is that the larger the tax base, the better it is for St. Paul, as we spread this tax base."
If the sale gets final federal approval, cleanup could start next spring.
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