When reckless drivers upset a neighborhood, most cities respond by adding new speed limits and increasing enforcement.
So it seems logical that when foul odors plague a community, a city would be able to curb the problem by placing new limits on that as well.
But the South St. Paul City Council is cautioning residents to temper expectations for proposed odor ordinance that would require local businesses to keep their odors in check.
Pointing to ‘odor generators’
“I really, really have some concerns that we’re creating a little bit of false hope here,” Council member Chris Lehmann said at the Dec. 2 meeting where the ordinance was introduced. “We all live here and we all go, ‘It smells bad’ sometimes, but we don’t always have the ability to point to some specific person, and when you get into the enforcement action, it’s a different level.”
Under the terms of the ordinance, significant odor generators in the community would be identified by quantitative testing or by being the subject of more than seven resident complaints to the city within a six-month period. Once identified as an odor generator, the property owners would have 90 days to compose a detailed odor-abatement strategy to present to the city.
The property would then have one year to implement the strategy. If follow-up tests by the city show a decrease in odors at the end of the year, the property would then be removed from the list of odor generators. If tests do not demonstrate the necessary decline in odor after the year-long period, the property owners would be required to work with the city to amend the abatement strategy.
Property owners who do not comply with the ordinance or who fail to implement their abatement strategies would be subject to a $500 administrative penalty and would be required to pay for all subsequent testing.
A city of smells
South St. Paul has a history with pungent aromas dating back to its stockyard days, but some residents complain the odors have been worse in the past few summers than ever before.
The odor issue is frequently blamed on businesses such as Sanimax, Twin Cities Tanning, Twin Cities Hide and Dakota Premium Foods, all of which work with rendered animal products and are located along the river near Interstate 494 in the southeast part of the city.
However, those businesses counter their practices and equipment have actually become safer and cleaner over the past 50 years.
In 2010, the city hired St. Croix Sensory, a Lake Elmo company that specializes in testing air samples, to conduct an odor survey of the city using olfactometers (portable odor measuring devices).
The city considered an odor ordinance at that time, but eventually abandoned the plans.
Frequent odor complaints also drew an investigation from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in August of 2012, but, as with previous efforts, the investigation provided the city with no action steps to address the issue.
The odor ordinance currently under consideration would give South St. Paul a long-desired enforcement component, but City Attorney Kori Land told the council at the Dec. 2 that there would likely be a number of details to smooth out before the ordinance can have an appreciable impact.
“It’s been through a very thorough process and we think what we’re bringing you is a good product,” Land said. “Time will tell, obviously, and we will probably need to make some changes as we go, but we think it is a very good framework to start with.”
Land said city staff had worked with several businesses when drafting the ordinance in order to draw input and make sure the goals and processes were realistic.
Council members generally praised the ordinance as a necessary step, but expressed concern about various details and real-world viability.
Council member Todd Podgorski said he was particularly leery of a provision within the ordinance that would allow business to conduct their own odor testing with city approval.
“That paragraph raises some alarm bells for me,” Podgorski said. “Are we allowing the fox to guard the henhouse?”
Lehmann said while the self-testing aspect didn’t seem concerning to him, he did worry about a number of critical components in the ordinance that are still unanswered, including the fact that the city’s 2014 budget includes no provision for the cost of testing and enforcement under the ordinance.
Lehmann added it seemed troublesome that the ordinance hinges on testing procedures and measurements that the city has not yet determined.
“I am worried about how we’re going to show someone’s been above or below a baseline when we’re not even sure how we get to the baseline,” Lehmann said.
Residents asked for feedback
Both Lehmann and Council member Tom Seaberg added concerns about how the ordinance would fare in court if businesses decided to challenge penalties, particularly considering the fact that there are no comparable laws at the state level to establish precedent.
However, most council members agreed the ordinance an essential step forward in spite of the challenges ahead.
“This is truly a work in progress, and I’m very proud that the City of South St. Paul and its businesses have taken the lead,” Council member Lori Hansen said.
Mayor Beth Baumann encouraged residents to weigh in on the ordinance and provide the city with suggestions and feedback prior to the second reading at the council’s Dec. 16 meeting.
“We are committed to this,” Baumann said. “We promised the public, and we take that very seriously.”
Luke Reiter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or at 651-748-7815.