It is a swath of acreage most know nothing about and nearly no one has ever seen because it’s a tucked-away, municipal garbage dump the city of Wheeling has blockaded for good reasons since the early 1970s.
The old North Park Landfill, in use from 1971 until 1983, has been undevelopable land although it rests between a plethora of homes in North Park Glenwood Heights. One edge of it overlooks the Warwood area and the Ohio River, and to the south is a vista that makes visitors wonder why this land was picked for rubbish and not a large-house development like other hilltop locations have been.
The property, according to city officials, contains both an “old” and “new” landfill areas. The “old” area was approximately 30 acres large with 16 acres used for disposal. The two landfills are approximately 125 total acres, and 35 acres of the property is developable.
“It was not uncommon at that time for a city in the country to pick a big piece of property for a place for their landfill, and I know for the city of Wheeling that landfill was very profitable for the city while it was in operation,” City Manager Bob Herron said. “But even though that facility has not been an active landfill since the early 1980s, we still have more years to wait until it can be officially closed and used for another purpose.
“But now that kind of business is more regional and more rural than it once was,” he said. “I don’t think there are too many cities in the country right now that are establishing landfills so close to residential living.”
The city of Wheeling has used the land for the storage of materials like sandstone from demolitions and mulch from trimming operations all over the city, and the roads are graveled all the way up to the cellular tower that is situated on the property’s highest point and down to the four leachate ponds that, once the interred trash bleeds out into the rainfall runoff and ultimately is treated by the city of Wheeling, will be removed. “We are assessing that property now, but I believe we’re still a long way away from being able to use that property,” Herron reorted. “The land is used by residents now because the city does permit bow hunting on the property, and that’s been very popular since we started that a few years ago. We have had many, many people come in to get registered so they can hunt there.
“And at one time we did try to place a shooting range there for our police department, but that didn’t work out because it was simply too loud for the residents who live in that area,” he continued. “What we do know is that it’s not a good idea to construct a building on any part of it that was used for the landfill, but recreation is a logical choice for the future when that property can be reused.”
The redevelopment, though., will not take place this year or even next because this land continues to shift because of the sculpting process that has taken place since the facility was closed. Since then, slope stability, drainage, and gas control have been primary issues as have the requirements mandated by the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. “The Department of Environmental Protection has to be involved with the future of the former landfill site because of the ongoing mitigation that has to take place,” explained Jesse Mestrovic, the city’s director of parks and strategic planning. “The land up there has shifted, and that potential still exists today, so the contours of the area have changed over time, and that is why building a permanent structure up there is not a good idea.
“But the biggest responsibility there is involves safety, and that’s why the city will work very closely with the DEP as we move forward with this land,” he said. “There are several steps that have to be taken before the area can be used for anything new, but I do believe the conversation has begun to make sure it is utilized in the future in ways that our community will find beneficial.”
Mestrovic owns his ideas, and his visions, of course, involve recreational reuse when environmental authorities deem it possible.
“I would really like to see it used as a huge, outdoor recreational area for the city of Wheeling, because I can see biking and hiking trails, disc golf, an area for archery, and some open fields for people do what they want to do outside,” Mestrovic said. “Anything that will keep people closer to the natural world but also activities that make sense to this area.
“It will not be possible to build anything on the land where the landfill was. But that hasn’t been a problem at other former landfill sites across the country, so I would like to see us do something very similar here,” he continued. “Here in the city we have a lot of ballfields and playgrounds that we are studying very hard now, but we really don’t have this kind of open space for recreation except for here, and it’s now time to start really considering the options.”
The state’s Landfill Closure Assistance Program initiated the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative Project in 2009 with officials of the DEP, WVU, and the city of Wheeling’s Melissa Thompson. In 2012, the group staged a Community Design Event, and 30 Wheeling residents attended to offer their ideas for the property.
The people suggested biking and hiking trails, a dog park, a playground and picnic shelters, an orchard, a zipline attraction, disc golf, and an area for extreme paintball.
That is why Mestrovic is confident his concepts are close to what local people would like to see there when possible. Plus, a number of other communities in the United States have successfully transformed landfills into golf courses and ballfields, cross country courses, renewable energy fields, and municipal operations.
“There are models that we can review when discussing this acreage because transforming mitigated landfill sites into an area for outdoor activities has taken place in several states in the country,” he explained. “And there is land up there where the construction of shelters and bathrooms can take place because the entire area was not used for the landfill. We do have the maps that reveal where that can take place as we move into the future.
“I can have all of the ideas in the world, but what it comes down to is that this is the people’s property,” Mestrovic said. “I have seen the previously conducted reports, but I hope to gain even more input from the people in Wheeling because for it to be a successful re-use, the people will have to utilize it.”
Vice Mayor and Ward 1 Councilman Chad Thalman wishes the landfill acreage could be used as a part of the housing solution in the city of Wheeling, but he is aware that is not a likely option at this time for the land.
“I was at the landfill less than a month ago with Jesse Mestrovic, and we took a look at the location, and we discussed what potentially could happen there in the future,” Thalman said. “From what I understand about that land is that we’re likely a good five years away from being able to use it for anything, but I can tell you that some of those discussions are taking place right now.
“We do have a housing issue here in Wheeling, but the former North Park Landfill is not an area that can be used because of the land-shifting issues at those kinds of sites,” he continued. “So, while housing may not be an option there, I know Jesse has a lot of other ideas, and there are other communities to look at as we move forward with this discussion.”
Soon after he was sworn in as mayor of Wheeling, Glenn Elliott and the six members of city council formed three ad-hoc committees with a plethora of Wheeling residents as the members. The groups were allotted six months to offer a report on three specific areas: Industrial Development, Retention of citizens, and workforce housing.
Those committees submitted their respective reports during the past month and those conversations currently are ongoing.
With the clock is ticking to a time closer to being able to utilize this forgotten land, will Mayor Elliott and Council create a committee for this conversation?
Mestrovic is hopeful.
“I do like the idea of creating a new committee with several members of our community because I believe getting the citizens involved is one of the best things we can do,” he said. “This land has neighborhoods on both sides of it, so hearing from those folks would be very important in my opinion, plus it is the people of this area that would use it, so hearing what they would like for themselves and their children would benefit the process in a big way.
“It’s all about adding components to improve the quality of life, but at this time I do not believe a lot of people know about this area and its potential in the future,” he said. “It’s really out of sight, so it’s really not on the minds of the people of Wheeling. But I see it as an opportunity, and I’m looking forward to getting the people involved so we can hear their ideas.”
The city’s vice mayor confirmed that it is definitely a possibility when the time is right.
“The mayor and I have discussed whether or not any new committees need to be created now that three of them have offered their reports after six months of talks and research, and I would anticipate that some new committees will be created,” Thalman explained. “The Industrial, Workforce Housing, and the Retention committees all did a great job, and each of them gave city council very insightful reports.
“They presented us with a lot of different ideas and a lot of different thoughts about how to move into the future,” he confirmed. “That’s why I believe it’s been very beneficial to have these committees, and moving forward, I think it would be a good idea to create new ones to help and guide the city with making the right decisions for the future concerning this landfill property.”
Since he was hired at the beginning of the year, Mestrovic has conducted a great deal of research in order to identify how to best renovate several of the parks and playgrounds, but he has also examined what outdoor assets are within the municipality. This North Park land is one of those assets, he believes, but Mestrovic also realizes more time is needed before decisions can be made.
“There are still the leachate ponds doing what they do, and once the DEP confirms they can be removed, that will have to happen, and there are still areas up there that need to be covered so we can be sure it is ready for adaptive re-use,” he said. “There are state and federal regulations that have to be followed, and we’ll let the experts do what they have to do to bring the area back to its natural state as much as possible.
“There have been suggestions made in the past involving the re-use of the land, and we’ll also have to think about what roads may be needed, too,” Mestrovic added. “There a lot of steps that need to be taken and I hope everyone understands that, but I do hope that the people in Wheeling start to think about it, maybe even dream a little, too.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)