COEUR d’ALENE — Beyond the neatly groomed yards and apartments on John’s Loop, past the groaning of tractors and trucks with diesel stacks fluttering, and from over an expanse of lumpy ground seeded with clover, Mike Gridley took pause.
“I love the sound of the river,” said Gridley, Coeur d’Alene’s city attorney.
Out here, on the property known to residents as the Atlas Mill, or the old Stimson site, a 47-acre parcel of quietude between Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls that borders the Spokane River, the prevailing sound is a gurgling of water and the chuckle of ospreys.
Gridley and city planner Hilary Anderson, along with representatives from the state’s department of environmental quality and an environmental contractor, walked the Atlas site Wednesday morning to familiarize themselves with the land the city hopes to purchase.
The Coeur d’Alene City Council earlier this month tentatively agreed to purchase for $8 million the brownfields property the city plans to annex and develop as public river access, parceling a portion for resale.
“You’ve got to get on the ground to appreciate it,” said Steve Gill, brownfields specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality.
From their jumping-on point at the end of west Suzanne Road, a dead-end street on the western perimeter of the bustling Riverstone development complex, the small contingent, dressed against what looked like rain, walked the length of the parcel before back-tracking a half-mile along the river.
Vacant for more than a decade, the site falls gradually, for the most part, from Seltice Road to the river between Riverstone and the Mill River neighborhood. It once housed a lumber mill, wood storage areas and a log holding pond. A railroad bisected the land and a trestle crossed a canal. The railroad right-of-way already belongs to the city.
Although the land is considered a brownfields site, Gill said the stigma doesn’t fit the property.
“These mill sites, unless they treated lumber here, are usually pretty clean,” Gill said.
A decade ago, the property was under contract by mega-developer Marshall Chesrown, who prompted Stimson, which closed its lumber mill there, to clean up and test the ground for contaminants as part of the purchase agreement. Chesrown filed for bankruptcy and lost the contract, but not until after Stimson had completed a more than $1 million remediation.
Geotechnical borings didn’t turn up any contaminants, Gill said.
“All they found was wood waste.” he said.
And the property was cleared for development of mixed residential housing.
“It assuaged their concerns,” he said.
But the real estate crash of 2008 renewed skepticism in the market, and the mill site sat idle until the city moved to purchase the land this month from a company called Bad Axe LLC.
“After 2008 everything just languished,” Gill said.
But the property wasn’t without its visitors.
Because vehicles can skirt a haphazard blockade leading to the site, motorists sometimes drive on the upper part of the land near Seltice Road and use the grounds as a dump site. The land at the edge of city property is also used as a homeless camp and because it lies outside their jurisdiction, city police don’t patrol there.
Bags of garbage and car parts litter the upper edge of the land.
“I’ve been coming here every week, and that bumper off of a Cherokee wasn’t here a week ago,” Gill said.
To Jon Welge of Tetra Tech, a Spokane company that contracts with DEQ for environmental assessments, brownfields projects mean opportunity. Welge worked on the former LP mill site in Sandpoint, a brownfields that is now home to a Super 1 Foods and a housing complex.
“You’re taking something that is a blight in the community ... and converting it to public use,” Welge said. “Talk about generating revenue.”
Welge’s job will be to assess the historical use of the site back to 1909, crunch data from previous assessments, and conduct his own research seeking evidence of petroleum releases, before reporting back to DEQ.
“If there aren’t any releases, there is no environmental liability associated with the property,” he said.
Those tests have been completed once already, but his job is to make doubly sure.
As the investigative phase of the site progresses, more walk-throughs will be conducted as issues are addressed and land-use planning is buttressed with public input.
If the deal goes through, the city could sell half the water frontage to a private developer and use the remaining half — more than a quarter-mile — for public access.
The City Council on Tuesday approved an annexation agreement with River’s Edge Apartment LLC, which owns 3.8 acres inside the Atlas land. The property located at 2772 W. Seltice Way is the former site of the Stimson Lumber Co. offices. The agreement includes a zoning permit allowing for 130 residential apartment units on the property.
“Lots of times these properties were the heartbeat of the community,” Welge said. “So, it’s an emotional process at the same time it’s a rebirth.”