Smelly business in Frogtown?

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To Frogtown residents, the zoning violations charged against Todd Nimmo, owner and president of Rail Transfer Incorporated (RTI) don’t get at their concerns about the business operations. The community that surrounds Nimmo’s business, which is located at 681 and 733 Pierce Butler Route, has complained of a putrid smell, dust and loud noises emanating from the two properties since the business first rented the sites in 2005. Community members, Nimmo, and city officials met on October 26 to discuss the charges.

After receiving complaints from neighbors, a zoning inspector for the Department of Safety and Inspections investigated both the 681 and the 733 properties, owned by Burlington Northern Railroad, and Apostolic Faith Temple Church, respectively. She reported various outdoor storage violations as well as cross-dock operations, a type of freight transfer activity that would mean Nimmo’s rented properties are operating as facilitating motor freight terminals. That business use is prohibited in the Industrial-1 zoning code.

The zoning criteria for a motor freight terminal states:

“A facility with more than one dock per 5000 square feet of warehouse, storage, or related use and used for either 1) the loading, unloading, dispensing, receiving, interchanging, gathering, or otherwise physically handling freight or shipment or 2) any other location at which freight is exchanged by motor carriers between vehicles. This includes but is not limited to cross-dock operations and does not include a package delivery service. Excludes buildings with six or fewer loading docks.”

The exterior storage violations charge that the storage of RTI’s equipment does not meet the city’s requirement of being at least 300 feet away from a residential district or residential use. Less than 100 feet away from these RTI properties are a recreation center, baseball fields, Calvary Cemetery, and homes.

As for the stench, saturating the air around the properties and even stretching as far as Dale Street, that comes from the dry distilled corn that the RTI transports. Nimmo told the community meeting that, based on numerous environmental studies, the smell that corn exudes when wet is not hazardous to humans. Nimmo agreed to provide these studies at a future community meeting. Other RTI operations include transferring grain that is used for ethanol manufacturing, which is shipped to other countries to be used as cattle feed after its use.

In a September 15 letter, the inspector suggested that the business request rezoning to satisfy motor freight terminal regulations, or it would have to discontinue of its operations within two weeks of receiving the letter.

Disputes between Nimmo and the DSI’s findings emerged when Nimmo appealed the claim from the zoning inspector. His attorney, Ferdinand F. Peters, wrote a letter to the DSI opposing the claims against Nimmo’s business and pointing out that the 681 property had only one loading dock, when the criteria for a motor freight terminal calls for more than one.

However, an October 11 staff report for the Board of Zoning Appeals states, “that the Zoning administrator did not err in the determination that this is a motor freight terminal.  Further, that the exterior storage does not meet setback requirements from residential districts and uses and that this operation must be discontinued.”

At an October 18 public hearing with the Board, the decision was made for the appeal to be continued until November 15 after an agreement between Nimmo and the Board for Nimmo to seek community input.

Most community concerns barely regard the zoning violations and instead address the odor, dust, and noise level created by the operation. Other concerns included the lack of fencing or any sort of security on the site and the amount of dust in the air from the dry corn possibly affecting those with asthma.

Members of the Frogtown community met October 26 to hear from Nimmo and to vote on how the property should be zoned. However, most attendees of the meeting felt disinclined to vote, given their lack of knowledge on zoning technicalities. One Frogtown resident, Tony Schmitz, said that, “In the end a good number of people in the room didn’t vote on the question of whether this thing is a motor freight terminal or properly belongs in some other zoning category. To many neighbors, myself included, that seemed like a technical/legal question that should be answered by people with detailed knowledge of the zoning code.”

Tait Danielson Castillo, director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said that the important fact to note is that neighbors are unhappy with the odor and the noise, and he wants to make sure that these concerns are taken as seriously as the zoning code.

Even though more than 60 community members attended the meeting, according to Frogtown resident Boa Lee, only 23 voted, both due to some discomfort in voting and also because those who did not live in the District 7 area were asked not to vote. In a sixteen to seven vote, the community supported Nimmo’s appeal to the Department of Safety and Inspection in that he was not violating the zoning code. Nimmo’s case will be presented again to the Board on Monday November 15 at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall.