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Subpar soil spoils south shore land deal

BEMIDJI -- Polluted soil conditions have led the developers of a potential south shore apartment building to back out of a land deal with the city of Bemidji.

In August, the city entered into a purchase agreement to sell about three acres of land for $350,000 to Grand Forks, N.D., developer Northridge Construction to build a four-story, 60-unit apartment building on the site. The land was located west of the Sanford Center and north of First Street on the south shore.

However, a report by surveyors Widseth Smith Nolting sent to the city Dec. 31 said the cost of clearing out the bad soil at the site would be roughly $550,000, hundreds of thousands more than the cost to buy the property.

In a memo to the Bemidji Economic Development Authority ahead of its Tuesday meeting, city attorney Al Felix included documents that, if signed by the BEDA and Northridge, would dissolve the purchase agreement. Of the $35,000 down payment Northridge made to BEDA, the city would return $32,000 plus interest but keep $3,000.

Brian Ross, environmental services director at WSN, said the proposed spot for the building was on a former dump site for wood processing plants. Decaying wood chips from the dump, combined with other organic material, make the soil ill suited for a building as large as the apartment building Northridge planned, as the weight would compress the muck below.

"If you try to build something heavy, it would sink," Ross said.

In addition to expensive extra foundation materials developers may have needed, Ross said potential adverse health effects from toxins in the polluted soil were high enough so that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regulations would have required 12 feet of soil to be "remediated," or cleared away.

Aaron Chirpich, development director for the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and one of the main go-betweens for the city and Northridge, said the developer will now look to alternative build sites nearby that have cleaner soil but come at a higher land price.