Kate Hunt was tired of feeling like St. Paul staff snubbed her opposition to the city’s Ford site plans. So she and some Highland Park neighbors came up with a plan the city could not ignore — a 10-foot-tall sign that would sit above the neighborhood’s busiest intersection.

The group drafted potential billboard messages.

“Keep Highland LIVABLE!”

“No taxes for urban sprawl and traffic jams!”

But Clear Channel Outdoor, the national advertising company that owns the billboard at Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue, brought their plan to a halt. It declined to run their ad without offering a reason, Hunt said.

The billboard debacle is another flare-up in the long-standing debate over the future of the more than 120-acre Ford site on the city’s southwest edge. Neighbors for and against the city’s development ideas are pumping up their activism as St. Paul prepares for a comment period on its draft master plan this month leading up to a June public hearing.

Highland Park resident Tom Basgen is a member of Sustain Ward 3, a group that created a petition this week in support of the city’s plan. He said residents are finding time, and baby sitters, so they can circulate the petition and show up at community events and meetings, because the Ford site offers a rare opportunity.

“This is a chance for Highland to define not only its own future, but support the entirety of St. Paul’s future. This is a blank slate, huge space here in the city,” Basgen said.

Hunt and her cadre have a petition of their own. They argue the city’s proposal, which could include up to 4,000 housing units and 1,500 jobs, will crowd streets. Years from now, after planners and politicians moved on, Hunt fears residents of the area will be left with an untenable situation.

So the group, Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul, pooled $1,100 to pay for the billboard.

“We wanted to inform the people in Highland Village and also send the message to the city: listen to us,” Hunt said, and with a billboard “you can’t turn the page, you can’t turn off your device — there it is.”

She said she feels the billboard company censored them.

Clear Channel Outdoor doesn’t discuss private business practices, said Tammy Hartman, the company’s vice president of public affairs, who declined to comment on the situation.

The company never contacted the city about the billboard, said Planning and Economic Development Director Jonathan Sage-Martinson.

St. Paul has been listening to residents’ thoughts on the Ford site since 2007 and has heard “loud and clear” a wide variety of opinions from more than 1,300 people, Sage-Martinson said. Now that a plan is coming before the Planning Commission, “It’s a bit of a focal point, I think, for what has been a decade of engagement,” he said.

Upcoming hearing

Residents will have a key opportunity to weigh in on the master plan at the Planning Commission hearing, which will likely be on June 30. Ford will be marketing the land over the next year and the master plan will guide how the developer builds on the site.

The plan divides the massive empty property into six districts, two of which are commercial areas along Ford Parkway. The other four are residential, with the shortest buildings closest to the Mississippi River. More than 20 percent of the property would be parks, trails and open space, according to the city. The more a developer builds at the site, Sage-Martinson said, the less public investment is needed for infrastructure like streets, parks and trails.

Professionals spent more than a decade on the plan, Basgen said, and he believes it would protect the environment and city’s tax base, while adding a blend of housing that expands the community’s population and diversity.

Hunt disagrees and is fighting not only the housing plans, but the possibility St. Paul will allow a $275 million tax increment financing district at the site — a number she said was not shared with neighbors for a long time. Sage-Martinson noted that tax increment financing information has been public since the City Council approved it last year.

“The city is less than transparent,” Hunt said. “That’s why we resorted to this sort of thing. I’m not a billboard fan.”