Illinois Public Media News
A new dispute has erupted among a utility, environmental officials and neighbors near a Champaign site that decades ago hosted a manufactured gas plant.
Ameren has been treating soil and groundwater on the site but maintains that contamination from the residue buried in the soil has not leached out into the surrounding area. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers disputes that, and today they say a nearby water main replacement project is digging up some of that questionable soil.
The group's director, Claudia Lenhoff, says Illinois American Water, Ameren and the city left neighbors in the dark over the safety of the water main project.
"This corridor here should be tested in order to remove any doubt to whether it's safe or not to be digging this soil and into the groundwater," Lennhoff said. "Just a few feet that way (toward the site itself) is contaminated."
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the water company cleared the project with them. "We were aware of what they're doing. They are aware of what we're doing," Morris said. "They know what the extent of the contamination is. And there is no contamination that they would need to be concerned about.'
But one neighbor, Magnolia Cook, distrusts whatever Ameren is saying about the site's safety. "Ameren has never told us the truth about anything, so why would we believe what Ameren is saying as far as this site is concerned, "Cook said. "How come the Illinois EPA is not out here to see what's underneath this dirt while they're digging?"
Neighbors have questioned why the Illinois EPA issued a permit for the project using Ameren's test results. However, Randy West, local field operations superintendent with Illinois American Water, says they commissioned their own soil testing along the water main site, and found no evidence of any contamination from the old gas plant.
Champaign's city council and park board want to make collaboration the key factor in getting parks built in new residential developments. They reached that conclusion during a joint meeting Wednesday night at the Park District's Virginia Theatre.
Park officials say the newest areas of the city are underserved when it comes to parks --- and they'd like more cooperation from developers in setting aside land for new facilities.
But Shawn Luesse of the Devonshire Group says developers are wary of any ordinance that would require them to provide a certain amount of park land, because they add to the cost of development. But he says negotiations can lead to agreements for new parks --- he sites a small park that Devonshire agreed to make room for in the new Applewood Valley subdivision in southwest Champaign. Luesse says doesn't mind talking with park officials when new developments are being designed.
"The idea that we are required to go the park district to talk about land donation is an Okay concept", says Luesse. "But I don't believe it requires an ordinance. But I don't believe that it requires an ordinance. I don't think an ordinance would add anything to the process. And there would be what I believe to be substantial pushback from the development community, if there were an ordinance in place."
After hearing from Luesse, some council members were way of using the word "mandatory" at all. Assistant City Planning Director Rob Kowalski says they'll keep working on an approach that will satisfy the city, park district --- and developers, too.
"We're going to continue to try and find a collaborative way between the city, the park district and the development community", says Kowalski, "that we can come up with a proposal that works fro everybody. I think it's going to be very challenging to do that, but we're going to continue to head down that path."
Champaign Park Board President Jane Solon says new developments added to the city in the past decade don't have enough park land to serve their residents. Developers who came to the joint meeting said they're willing to talk about adding parks to new subdivisions --- but are wary of any mandatory commitment, because of the cost factor.
Assistant Planning Director Rob Kowalski says it will be challenging, but his staff will try to find an alternative to the "mandatory" approach, that will give the city, park district and developers a way to work together on placing parks in new residential areas.
Champaign City Council members told city staff Tuesday night to prepare to issue debt for pay for the next stage of flood control improvements along the Boneyard Creek. And they also told staff to look into a way to pay for fixing flood control problems in city neighborhoods ---- a stormwater drainage fee.
Champaign city officials say a special fee charged to property owners --- perhaps 50 dollars a month on a single-family home --- could be used to pay for storm-sewer repairs and upgrades. At last night's city council study session, several residents from flood-prone neighborhoods said they favor such a fee over the current cost-sharing program, where residents in the affected neighborhood would pay 75 percent of the bill. Jim Creighton, the spokesperson for the West Washington Street Watershed Steering Committee, says there's nothing wrong with having all city residents share the cost of neighborhood drainage repairs.
"Others do benefit from fixing our drainage problems", argued Creighton. "It first stabilizes, then improves our neighborhood's property value, thus allowing us to make home improvements, increasing our properties further, ultimately increasing the tax base which helps all of us."
But a resident in the John Street Watershed didn't want to reject the cost-sharing model out of hand. Kelly Bean, who serves on her neighborhood's Watershed Steering Committee, says she knows a lot of residents ready to share the bill for drainage repairs.
"I have a number of checks dropped by my house", said Bean, "from families of moderate income that are ready to see the big pipe go in the ground in the John Street Watershed Area. This needs to happen yesterday."
While they wanted to preserve the cost-sharing option, Champaign city council members directed city staff to study the stormwater drainage fee idea further, along with other funding options. Finance Director Richard Schnuer says more details on the proposed fee could be ready at a study session in Dember.
Champaign city officials are preparing a zoning change on Green Street meant to encourage continued development in Campustown.
Green Street in Campustown has changed in the past decade. Flood control measures on Boneyard Creek have encouraged construction of tall buildings, and new street and sidewalk design encourages walking over driving. Architect Joshua Daley of Campus Property Management complimented the change during Tuesday night's Champaign City Council study session: "I think the incredible transformation of Green Street over the last ten years from Fourth to Wright is an example of a central Illinois city coming back to life."
Now, city planners want to create a zoning overlay on Green Street from 3rd Street west to the railroad tracks, to steer development in the same direction as the blocks to the east. The change would allow for taller buildings, require them to be placed closer to the sidewalk, and reduce commercial parking requirements. City Planner TJ Blakeman says they want the strip malls and other buildings with big parking lots on that part of Green Street to eventually disappear.
"Any time you scoot the building 30 feet back", says Blakeman, "you no longer invite pedestrians as easily into the space. You're inviting a car to park in front of it. So, long term, we don't want to see the parking in the front."
The concept won the endorsement of city council members Tuesday night. Mayor Jerry Schweighart gave his endorsement with the understanding that current buildings on Green Street would not be forced to change.
The mayor of Urbana says the best way to provide Big Broadband service in Champaign-Urbana is to have city government run the system.
The Big Broadband project's application for federal stimulus money envisions a system where any and all service providers can share the infrastructure and compete against each other. But Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says city government is best suited to provide Big Broadband --- Internet, TV and phone service --- to homes and businesses.
"Other cities have done this successfully", says Prussing, "and they're able to offer the customers a lower price --- and make money for the city, which benefits the customers as taxpayers."
Prussing says city government could get an exclusive lock on operating Big Broadband service by building and owning the final leg of optic fiber to homes and businesses. Except for about 46-hundred homes in underserved areas, that infrastructure won't be included in the first phase of Big Broadband now waiting for federal funding.
The idea was discussed at Monday night's Urbana City Council meeting. Prussing says her city --- with possibly Champaign joining them --- may hire a consultant to study the matter.
A Champaign city councilman is proposing a "family resource center" to provide services to residents of the city --- but especially to its northeast side.
1st District City Councilman Will Kyles says the need for a center to bring community services into the northeast side became clear to him in his work as outreach coordinator for Congressman Tim Johnson. He says the center could provide services and activities for children, teens, parents --- even ex-convicts trying to make a fresh start.
"We believe in structures, we need structures," Kyles said. "But the issue is that it'll take awhile to rebuild those structures, to redevelop the neighborhood. So in the process of redeveloping the neighborhood, why not have services that are building people up?"
Melorene Grantham of the Peer Ambassadors youth group told the city council a family resource center could provide activities for older teens that are currently lacking in the area. She says that's a need her group found out about from its monthly meetings with youth at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center.
They said they need other things to do to stay out of trouble, like jobs," said Grantham. "We went every month for some years; that was the top thing they say would keep out of trouble."
Kyles says the city of Champaign could work with the community, and leverage state and federal funds to put the family resource center together. But he says it wouldn't happen right away. He hopes the idea can be included among the Champaign City Council's goals for the next 5 to 10 years.
Champaign Police want to hear from neighborhoods in order to gear more officers towards crime prevention strategies.
Police Chief R-T Finney will discuss the strategy of 'problem-oriented policing' in the department's annual report before the Champaign City Council tonight. He says the discussions with residents in the past year have ranged from town-hall meetings with neighborhood associations to those focused on one or two blocks. Finney says the complaints start with traffic, but become more specific:
"They'll begin to point out issues other than speeding that really need to be addressed, said Finney. "Some of those issues are drug houses, inattentive landlords who are allowing crimes to occur in their houses, parks that may be affected by certain types of crimes. It may be something like a burglary spree that is occurring in a particular neighborhood."
Finney says often, the solution is as simple as putting up a fence at one home or increasing patrols at a business that sees more service calls.
He says the economy has forced the department to be creative as it shifts officers toward neighborhoods with greater problems. Problem-oriented policing started with meetings in the Garden Hills neighborhood and later moved to homes in the Hill and Church streets areas. Finney says he expects several more neighborhoods will come forth with concerns following tonight's presentation.
A coordinator of a tent community for the homeless wants to turn the project into a full-fledged not-for-profit organization.
In the meantime, Abby Harmon is asking Champaign city officials to practice what she calls "a higher level of ethics" and let the Safe Haven community keep camping on the grounds of St. Mary's Church, at least until winter sets in. Harmon says city regulations forbidding camping ought to be revisited in tough economic times.
"The city has a housing crisis on its hands that it needs to recognize," Harmon said. "Given the housing crisis, there are times when the pre-existing city ordinance is not working for the people. When the law no longer works for the people, the law needs to be modified."
Harmon says in the long term, the Safe Haven group would like to purchase "micro-houses" to replace tents for homeless residents. She describes them as 8x10-foot pre-fab rooms with solid walls that can accommodate heaters. They'd be served by a common kitchen-and-bath facility. Some Champaign council members have criticized the tent community, which was forced to leave its first home at Champaign's St. Jude Catholic Worker House because it violates city codes.
Ameren says an expanding portion of Southwest Champaign has necessitated plans for a new transmission line.
The first of two public meetings to help determine the route for the utility proposed 138-thousand volt line is Monday. It would extend from the Bondville Route 10 substation to one on the southwest portion of the University of Illinois campus in Savoy.
Spokesman Leigh Morris says what's key are any concerns about 'sensitivities' someone may want the line to steer clear of:
"It could be something like a cemetery, it could be a flood plain, it could be an archaeological site, a hospital, a school," Morris said. "But we need that kind of input, and we certainly want people to come because we need that input to develop the routes."
At a second open house this fall... Ameren IP will unveil its proposals for routes. Morris says feedback will still play a role then in what's submitted to the Illinois Commerce Commission. The filing with the ICC will take place in January, and its review process is expected to take 12 to 15 months.
Many routes for the line are already under consideration... they can be viewed on line at CI transmission-dot-com. Ameren's first public meeting on the transmission line is Monday from 4 to 7 at the Holiday Inn on Killarney Street in Urbana.
A new law signed this week sets aside clear boundaries for cities and villages in downstate Illinois to plan their future growth.
Those towns sometimes come into conflict with county zoning plans when they plan or annex new developments -- such as when Champaign approved an annexation agreement with a new Illinois American Water treatment plant two miles outside the city limits. The new law sets a one-and-a-half mile buffer around city or village limits before the county can restrict certain parts of those annexation agreements.
Champaign's deputy city attorney Trisha Crowley says local governments are fine with those limits.
"Basically it adds some certainty to the land use planning, so that's pretty important when you're making decisions that might involve development in 10,15, 20 years," Crowley said.
Smaller villages had also supported the new limits over worries that their planning efforts could be hurt by those of larger nearby cities. The new law doesn't affect counties in the Chicago or Metro East areas.
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