Water woes: Residents, company likely to remain at odds

By Danielle Gaines

The duties of a good neighbor were at the fore of conversation during Tuesday’s Champaign city council meeting. First, in a public hearing that lasted an hour and later just before the council voted to approve an annexation agreement with Illinois American Water Company.

The agreement, which passed 7-2, rezones 40 acres of what was agricultural land for industrial purposes. The company plans to build a water treatment facility on the land.

“Most of us who live in a farming community try to abide by one principle – and that is to be a good neighbor,” said Les Gioja, a community member speaking on behalf of several residents.

Dozens of issues with the legislation were brought forth.

An imposing presence

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    Many residents near the facility worry about its appearance and its imposing nature in an otherwise serene, rural setting. Preliminary building plans include the construction of two 65-foot towers.

    “I don’t know anyone who would say I want to move across the street from the water company,” Arna Leavitt said.

    Leavitt resides directly across the street from the now-approved facility. In February, American Illinois Water purchased 40 acres of land and the lot was mowed for the first time last week, Leavitt said.

    She said she does not consider the company to be a good neighbor.

    “They haven’t been so far,” she said.

    Representatives from the water company at the meeting did try to remedy some of the residents’ concerns, laying out a $100,000 landscaping plan. Included in the plan are native trees and shrubs along the roadways to mask the building and 15 percent of the company’s lot will be prairieland. The water company acknowledged that the shrubs and trees will not hide the structures, but will mitigate the harshness of them as one approaches.

    Bruce Knight, Champaign planning director, said the planned landscaping should be sufficient, as the structure is similar to others native to agricultural areas – commercial silos.

    “Is the water plant more offensive than already permitted (buildings)?” Tom Bruno, councilman-at-large, asked.

    The debate over dispersed development

    Many community and council members expressed uncertainty in “spot zoning” when already-industrialized areas are within two miles of the location in some directions.

    County Board members Steve Moser and Jonathan Schroeder were present to show concern about the development.

    “This is one step by one municipality … to leap frog somewhere and take it out of our hands,” Moser said. “The barn door is wide open.”

    Both men said a decision by Champaign to allow the annexation would undermine the time and money the county has invested in land use planning and could lead to future problems.

    Councilwoman Marci Dodds, district four, echoed those sentiments.

    “I don’t like spot zoning,” Dodds said. “I worry about its domino potential. We could be facilitating something we don’t intend to facilitate. I don’t like that we are disrespecting the county, residents and comprehensive plan.”

    Also debated was the right of the city of Champaign to exercise control over land outside of the city’s corporate limits and within Scott Township.

    “Why are you voting on land outside of your jurisdiction?” Jason Barickman, an attorney opposing the annexation, asked. “Municipalities don’t have the right to go out further and further and further.”

    Though the land is currently sparsely populated, it lies within the Champaign side of a boundary agreement made with the Village of Mahomet in 2001. The boundary was set to guide development and avoid jurisdictional problems resulting from growth.

    Illinois American said they asked Champaign for the annexation over the other potential governing bodies because 50 percent of their customers are from the city and the advanced infrastructure of Champaign was attractive.

    “There is an understanding of whose future jurisdiction this will be in,” Knight said.

    The money of it all

    The treatment facility site rests on land purchased from a farmer for $7,000 per acre. This cost is significantly less than land located in areas already zoned for industrial use.

    Community members also cited personal financial issues with the location of the project.

    Roger Marsh, a local attorney, bought his home just two months ago without knowing about the planned annexation. He said he is worried that his property will decrease in value as a result of the plant.

    “You are putting your zoning in a place where we have lived for as little as two months to as long as decades,” Marsh said. “A profit company can bear the price much easier than all of us.”

    Many of the local residents are also concerned about the economic impact a drop in their well levels might cause. Gioja said if his water service were disrupted for one day he would lose hundreds of poultry. If water loss were to occur on a weekend, it would be utter disaster, he said.

    Barry Suits, network operations manager for the company, assured the community members and the council that no such disasters would occur.

    “To the extent there are impacts, we will remedy those problems,” he said.

    An endless aquifer?

    Falling water levels in wells is only part of the water issue at hand.

    Derek Winstanley, chief of the Illinois State Water Survey, said he was not interested in rezoning or annexation, but wanted to address the stress the plant would place on the Mahomet Aquifer.

    “There is a great deal of concern about the future of the aquifer,” he said.

    Winstanley encouraged everyone to manage the aquifer through deliberate conversation, and not annexation.

    “There seems to be an arrogance that the aquifer water is infinite,” one community member said.

    Councilman Michael LaDue, district two, said he did not feel comfortable voting on the measure before seeing an environmental impact assessment of major draws from the aquifer. LaDue voted against the annexation.

    Dodds, who also voted no, agreed that more time and information was needed before making a decision.

    Bruno disagreed.

    “We will always be chasing more definite information with regard to the limits of the aquifer,” Bruno said. “The community’s future need for water is not affected by our decision tonight.”

    Deborah Frank-Feinen, councilwoman-at-large, said she did not want to ignore the residents’ concerns, but had to look at the big picture.

    “As the city of Champaign continues to grow, this utility needs to grow as well,” she said.

    The Future as Neighbors

    One definite number did come out of Tuesday’s meeting: December 31, 2009. An amendment proposed by Feinen allows for the termination of the annexation agreement on that date if no building permit has been applied for. The amendment also states that the annexation is not transferable for a different use.

    Councilwoman-at-large Karen Foster urged all sides of the disagreement to maintain an open line of communication and understanding.

    Leavitt said she and other residents would begin litigation to fight the decision.

    At the end of debate, Mayor Gerald Schweighart suggested a simple solution: create three or four smaller towers as opposed to the two taller ones. The water company said it would look into redesigning the buildings and is open to suggestions for paint schemes.

    “Why didn’t they consider making the structure shorter earlier?” Leavitt asked.