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Wednesday, April 23, 2008 02:52 pm

Make like a tree

Pillsbury plant has a new owner — and neighbors are furious

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It’s death for all of the mature trees on the Pillsbury plant site.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

Residents of the Pillsbury Mill neighborhood had high hopes for the site of the abandoned flour mill on the city’s northeast side. During a fall 2005 planning meeting, community members suggested a mix of environmentally friendly housing, retail shops, and other businesses. Several participants stressed that future developments should make use of green spaces such as parks and preserve the mill’s historic character. None of that now appears likely, at least not in the immediate future. On April 14, Jim Ley, owner of Ley Metals Recycling Inc. in Springfield, took control from the previous owner, Minneapolis, Minn.-based Cargill Inc., which ceased operations at the mill in 2002. Pillsbury Mills built the plant in 1929 and ran it until Cargill took over in 1991. “I don’t have any [plans],” Ley says. “I have a lot of ideas, just none pertaining to this building.”
Mike Farmer, the city’s director of planning and economic development, says that before the sale went through, members of his staff met with Ley, who inquired about city programs but has not yet applied for any assistance. People who live nearby say that Ley has already done too much in the brief period that he has owned the 18-acre plot. This past weekend, even before the “For Sale” sign had been removed, a worker cut grooves around the trunks of several trees on the property. This process, known as girdling, is used to kill a tree by disrupting the flow of water and sap from the roots. Workers have also been busy gutting the facility and hauling the materials away. Ley has refused to explain why the trees were girdled, leaving longtime neighbors mystified.
“The best thing about living over here is that parklike setting. To go over there and do that to those trees, it’s going to look like hell,” says Phil Galli, who lives across the street from the plant.
A Cargill-paid groundskeeper, who has been let go and declined comment, kept meticulous care of the property in the years since the company shut down the plant, neighbors say. “If there was a problem, we could call Cargill and they’d take care of it. There’s nobody to call anymore,” says Gary Pope, who also resides in the area. Danny Faulkner, who has lived in the neighborhood for 70 years, says he’s worried about the safety of children and the possibility that a strong wind — or earthquake — could knock down one of the dying trees. He and others also cite the presence of asbestos on the walls of the 160 concrete grain silos as another potential hazard for local residents. But Ley hasn’t broken any laws. City Hall spokesman Ernie Slottag says he’s not aware of any city ordinance that would prevent a private property owner from killing trees on his land. Despite the presence of asbestos, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Maggie Carson says IEPA approval is needed only if hazardous substances will be disturbed. She adds that an IEPA inspector visited the site where Ley’s workers were recycling scrap metals but found no asbestos violations. But the irreparable damage to the trees has left a bitter taste in the mouths of area residents.
“It’s worse than bizarre — it’s sickening,” says Galli.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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