Blink while exiting Hwy. 280 to go west on Kasota Avenue and you’ll likely miss the 1.67-acre vacant lot at the center of a fight pitting neighborhood environmental concerns against a local business’ desire to keep growing.

Covered with grass, scattered litter and a smattering of trees, the onetime ash dump in an industrial corner of St. Paul would become a waiting area for semitrailers if Rohn Industries, a paper and plastic recycler, gets its way. City staff and the St. Paul Planning Commission are recommending approval.

“St. Paul is going to collect more in taxes from me,” said owner Ron Mason, who added that his growing business needs more space for trailers to be parked before they are pulled into his facility a mile away.

But neighbors, worried that construction will disturb and disperse toxic waste-bearing soil, are asking the St. Paul City Council to pump the brakes. Concerned that not enough testing has been done to fully measure contamination at the Kasota Avenue site, officials of the local district council say they’d prefer taking all the soil away and restoring the site to its long-ago wetland status. Short of that, they say, it should be left alone.

Once part of an incinerator ash dump used by the city of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, the site’s levels of lead and other toxic chemicals cannot be fully known without additional testing, opponents say.

“We’re saying they need to do more — and it’s not happening,” said Kathryn Murray, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Council.

The City Council is tentatively scheduled to consider the neighbors’ appeal Dec. 4. Suzanne Donovan, a spokeswoman for St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections, said in an e-mail that “because the Council acts in quasi-judicial role in these appeals, we are not in a position to comment” about the case.

A pickup truck

Mason started his recycling business 36 years ago, driving a pickup truck and pulling paper from dumpsters to sell to recyclers. The business grew, and in 1988 he moved to 862 Hersey St., just east of Hwy. 280. Rohn Industries now employs 80 people.

Mason said he needs what will essentially be a parking lot for trailers waiting to pick up and drop off “in order to stay in St. Paul, which is what we want to do. Basically, we just don’t have enough land around our buildings.”

Putting a paved lot at 2495 Kasota Av. is probably the least disruptive option, Mason said.

“It just couldn’t be any more basic,” he said. “We’re disturbing as little soil as possible.”

Neighbors, however, worry that not enough soil testing has been done across the property to assuage community fears. The conditional approvals granted to Rohn Industries are premature, they said.

Several members of the Planning Commission shared those concerns; the group recommended denying St. Anthony Park’s appeal by an 8-7 vote and then approved the site plan by another 8-7 vote.

“There are serious and disturbing health and environmental concerns being ignored by the City that pose significant danger to human health due to the release of toxins from disturbing topsoil,” Murray wrote in the group’s Sept. 25 appeal letter to the city.

Pat Thompson, a member of the district council’s board, said Rohn Industries is a valued neighbor and opponents of the plan are willing to help find another site for trailer parking. But the potential dangers of the Kasota site are too great, she said.

More than 20 years ago, the district council successfully fought plans to build a gas station on the same site, Thompson said. While the city granted conditional approval to Rohn Industries, district council officials say it’s full of errors “in requirements, fact, procedure, and findings” on most of the findings used to support approval.

Dave Carland, president of site developer Venture Pass Partners, said soil samples have been tested and soils will be removed. Several state agencies and the area watershed district have reviewed project plans and plans to monitor construction.

“We got it greenlighted from everybody,” he said. “All of the environmental safety requirements that have been put in place have either been met or exceeded.”

The district council is composed of “good people,” Carland said, but their concerns are overblown.

“The position of the community is that they do not want the project developed,” he said. “We feel bad that it’s controversial. We don’t think it should be.”