The city is considering a 100-foot median on either side of the railroad tracks on St. Olaf Avenue to help create a quiet zone, meaning trains would no longer blare their horns as the move through the area. But the owner of Ziggy’s at St. Olaf and Hwy. 3 says that would hurt his business. (Chad Hjellming/southernminn.com)

The Northfield City Council approved next year’s road construction plan Tuesday following testimony from residents fearful of what might happen to Ziggy’s convenience store and repair shop should a 100-foot long median be installed on the street adjacent to the property.

The city plans to install a concrete median at the spot as part of a years-long effort to institute a “quiet zone” in Northfield wherein new safety infrastructure would allow the Union Pacific railroad to not blow its train horns when passing through city limits.

The Ziegler family — Pat, Lynn and Andrew — took over the former Amcon gas station in 2016 on Water Street/Hwy. 3, and renamed it Ziggy’s.

In a 6-1 vote, the council authorized a plan to resurface some streets in 2022, including St. Olaf Ave, alongside Ziggy’s. City staff estimate the entire project will cost about $4.75 million, but it was just a small portion of the project that particularly raised the ire of the public commenters Tuesday.

The controversy originated in one of the concepts put forward by engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson. The median, Ziggy’s owner Pat Ziegler told the council, would threaten his family’s business. He urged the council to consider a design option which calls for double stop arms at the rail/road intersection instead of the median.

Ziegler said the engineering firm had given him an alternate plan wherein the tanker trucks could pull into the small engine repair shop and then back into the gas station instead of going into the gas station directly. That alternate plan wasn’t feasible, he said, since the site also hosts two food trucks, which would block the truck’s path, Ziegler said. Furthermore, the tanker trucks arrive more or less randomly, with no set schedule, he said.

“Having the food truck move to accommodate that would not work well,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler was followed in public comments by resident Patrick Tomczik, who was clearly outraged.

“I’m so happy that our friends from St. Paul [referring to SEH engineers] are back here,” Tomczik said sarcastically.

Tomczik went on to scream at the council members, accusing them of not listening to the public.

“You’re going to put Ziggy’s out of business, because you want something that you want, but you’ll put him out of business,” Tomczik said.

“You are forcing this down our throats, and that’s not right!” he continued.

Council Member Brad Ness moved that the council approve the road plan, with the stipulation that there would be no median on St. Olaf Avenue.

“I think if we put a median in there, there’s a business that will not be here within months, after that is installed,” Ness said.

A third commenter who had followed Ziegler and Tomczik appeared not to know what a quiet zone was, mistakenly urging the council to do something about the train noise if they were so intent on creating a quiet zone.

Council Member Jessica Peterson White explained that the quiet zone was, in fact, intended to prevent train noise. The 2022 road construction work at the St. Olaf intersection was intended to satisfy what Peterson White described as a nearly unanimous wish by Northfield residents to stop the trains from blaring their horns, she said. To stop the train horns, it was necessary for the city to fulfill very stringent requirements from the railroad by putting in certain alternative safety equipment at each intersection.

“We’ve just got to do it one intersection at a time, until we’ve got them all done, and then we can go to the railroad and say ‘Okay, can you please stop it?’” Peterson White said.

The goal for Ziggy’s to remain in business was also shared by the council, Peterson White said.

Mayor Rhonda Pownell used her remarks to contest the commenters’ notion that the city did not listen to the public. She said she opposed Ness’ motion to eliminate the median, calling it premature.

“I’ve heard our city staff say they would come back to us after working with the business owner, and the land owners, and whoever else [they’re] working with… that’s the appropriate time, from my standpoint, that we would be giving direction on how to handle the east side of St. Olaf Avenue to be able to accomplish that quiet zone,” Pownell said.

Peterson White then made a motion to amend Ness’ motion, taking out the part of the motion that would preclude a median being installed. She explained that although she also did not want the median there, she agreed with Pownell that the moment was too early in the process and there were no alternatives to the median that were yet agreed upon by the interested parties.

“There are many options — I hope — around that property to ensure that Ziggy’s can have the access they need, and we can still have the improvements needed to eventually enact a railroad quiet zone,” Peterson White said. “But it’s not, at this point, sufficiently clear to me that that can be done without that median there. I’m not interested in tying staff and our engineers’ hands, and just removing this one tool at this stage.”

As Council Member Jami Reister explained, no matter what the council did Tuesday, it would not mean definitely one way or the other whether a median would be installed by Ziggy’s.

The main motion would simply be authorizing staff to start work on the plans and specifications for the project.

Peterson White’s amendment passed, and then the overall motion to begin planning the streets project passed 6-1. Pownell voted against it, explaining she took issue with how some of the bike lines were laid out.

Reach reporter Zach Kayser at 507-645-1115. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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