City Council to settle contentious school proposal for Grant

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II and KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 3, 2011 - 8:57 PM

The Mahtomedi district will have to invest more than $400,000 to renovate the former dump site to appease parental concerns.

A battle over an elementary school that would be built near a former toxic waste dump will cost Mahtomedi schools more than $400,000 to alleviate the fears of some residents who are hesitant to send their children to the school.

The fate of a $17 million Wildwood Elementary school in Grant -- already months behind schedule -- now hangs on a City Council vote scheduled for Tuesday night on a permit to allow construction.

From the start, the proposal has been mired in controversy. Some Grant residents have alleged that students will "turn green" from toxic fumes. Others have raised concerns about traffic jams on nearby roadways. Proponents of the Gateway Trail, which gets heavy use from walkers, joggers and cyclists, say a school bus road that will cross the trail would invite tragedy.

"The pushback was not something we were anticipating," said Mahtomedi Superintendent Mark Larson. "We had 40 public meetings, and we answered everyone's questions. We thought it was a suitable piece of land."

The school, which would serve residents in both Mahtomedi and Grant in Washington County, will house about 600 kindergarten through second-grade students and an early-childhood education center. It's been in the works since 2003 when the district purchased the land. A $45 million bond issue that voters approved last year will pay to replace the 52-year-old existing Wildwood school and fund improvements to three existing schools.

The new school would be built 600 feet east of a decades-old 10-acre waste dump that was used for common household garbage, oil sludge and other toxic substances. The 553 tons of waste sludge hauled away during a 1990s cleanup contained lead and polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, which can cause cancer.

Larson said the district has conducted six inspections that cost about $12,000. Two scientists at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have concluded, after testing, that the site is safe for the school.

The district plans to install a $200,000 vapor barrier below the school to block chemicals that could seep from the ground. And, in response to nearby neighbors' noise concerns, the district plans to spend $96,000 to plant rows of trees.

But the proposed school remains a hot topic with residents who have lingering concerns about pollution and oppose building a road across the Gateway Trail, said Steve Bohnen, a City Council member.

Almost all of the Grant residents who have testified at public hearings oppose the school at that location, Bohnen said, and only a few have told him they support the plan. "I'm certainly not against the school being built," he said. "I do find it odd that they want to build a school on a site where they'll have to put a vapor barrier under the school."

Bohnen said some of the sharpest criticism relates to the road from the school to Jamaca Avenue. Mostly buses would use that road, while parents driving their children would use the main entrance at County Hwy. 12.

Joe Gustafson, a traffic engineer for Washington County, said the Jamaca road would separate buses from cars and prevent traffic problems at the main entrance. Having the Jamaca road also would avoid a costly stoplight at the main entrance for vehicles turning east toward Stillwater, he said.

Larson said the district will spend $100,000 to build that road.

The county wants to build an underpass or bridge at the crossing when money comes available, Gustafson said.

But the Gateway Trail Association remains in firm opposition to the road plan.

"You're now having bikes, horses, cars coming from different directions," said John Oldendorf, the organization's president, who described potential danger.

Larson remains optimistic that the City Council will back the plan.

"We want the public to really believe ... that this is going to be a great spot for kids," he said.

Mayor Tom Carr said he's satisfied with the planning commission's conclusion and said residents of Grant, a city of about 4,000 people, have had their say. "I'm not going to open this up for another public debate," he said of Tuesday's meeting. "We've already had that multiple times. Any claims that we haven't had a public debate are untrue."

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgiles

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