Controversial road sinks again

n Former Harrison Avenue extension drops ‘about an inch or less’

The controversial Harrison Avenue/Springfield Avenue extension that began construction three years ago and opened just last year is still sinking. Workers from Engineered Concrete Lifting Consultants, Inc., were on site last Thursday near the Cunningham Road intersection repairing several sections of the southbound lanes that sank about one inch. The road was renamed Springfield Avenue last year.

Construction on the road has been plagued by controversy since its inception. Advocates of the road extension, such as Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris

Cohn (R) claimed the road would pave the way for economic opportunities.

Critics claimed the road was hammered through the county board to primarily benefit some land owners, developers and construction contractors at the expense of homeowner’s rights, preservation of a Native American cultural site and destruction of wetlands.

The Rock River Times covered the project extensively during 2000 and 2001.

As a result of the apparent absence of a natural foundation, initial construction of the road sank several feet. Subsequent reconstruction efforts have necessitated the use of bentonite rock to provide an artificial foundation for the road. Bentonite rock expands after it contacts water and is commonly used to seal abandoned water wells.

Some sources speculate the aquifer was penetrated during the installation of giant culverts to change the course of Kent Creek before a massive, gravel berm for the roadbed could be trucked in to span the valley.

Joe Vanderwerff, Winnebago County engineer, said ”there was a slight dip in the pavement–about an inch or less” that needed repair. Vanderwerff said county

workers regularly monitor the road section above and near Kent Creek, which is approximately one-quarter mile south of Cunningham Road.

However, Vanderwerff added the state contracts with Rockford Blacktop Construction Co. to maintain and repair the road until 2005. Rockford Blacktop was

awarded the road’s construction contract and received at least $6.1 million for work on the project.

In addition to the road sinking, inspection of the site showed top soil eroded to the gravel-rock foundation in many areas, despite plant cover. The erosion took place on both sides of the berm designed for the road’s span over Kent Creek.

Vanderwerff said erosion on such road construction sites is not unusual. Vanderwerff wasn’t sure if Rockford Blacktop was responsible for addressing the erosion problem.

According to a 2002 LexisNexis corporate affiliations publication, Rockford Blacktop is one of 13 subsidiaries of William Charles, Ltd., whose chairman is Charles J. Howard. At the time of construction, William Charles owned 10 known properties on the Harrison Ave./Springfield Avenue corridor, including two quarries that now have open access.

The county used a controversial version of eminent domain known as quick-take for land owned by Tom and Janice Ditzler in 2000. The area where the road is sinking was formerly owned by the Ditzlers until Winnebago County Judge Gerald Grubb ruled the county could legally and immediately seize Ditzler’s 9.4 acres needed for the extension.

Quick-take allows local governments to immediately seize property for projects and settle on a market price for land or structures at a later date.

However, many opponents of quick-take argue the provision should never be allowed for questionable public projects–especially road construction.

At the time quick-take was being considered by the county, former Governor George Ryan said in a letter to the General Assembly, “While I believe most communities in Illinois being granted quick-take authority in Senate Bill 1680 would use the power for important public purposes, I am concerned about the continuing local dispute in Winnebago County related to the acquisition of a portion of the Ditzler farm.

“Quick-take authority can be an excellent tool in situations when land or buildings are neglected or are dangerous to the community and the land can be used for public good. Yet, I believe that we must be very careful to ensure that demands of a developer or a local government’s efforts to expedite the land acquisition process do not trample the property rights of citizens and business owners,” Ryan wrote.

Ryan vetoed Senate Bill 1680 in July 2000 and wouldn’t release construction funds for the extension until the Ditzlers “had their day in court.” However, the county seized Ditzler’s property through Public Act 91-367, which was passed in July 1999. The act was originally House Bill 452. Grubb ruled the land seizure legal in August 2000. Shortly after the ruling, Ryan immediately released road funds that allowed construction to begin.

State records show Grubb donated cash to only two political candidates since 1996, both were fellow Republicans: $235 went to Cohn’s campaign last year and $350 to State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) in 1996.

Itemized contributions to Grubb’s campaign are not posted on the state’s campaign disclosure Web site, even though Grubb’s campaign has spent and received thousands of dollars in 1995 and 1996. It is not known why the itemized contributions and expenditures are not available.

Cohn was a major proponent of the extension. From 1998 to June 2000, Cohn received 63 percent of her campaign contributions from possible road beneficiaries, which totaled $81,953. At the July 13, 2000, Winnebago County Board meeting, Cohn said Vanderwerff recommended the county use quick-take for the project.

Tom Ditzler was not surprised about the southbound lanes being repaired last week. Ditzler recalled the pavement previously sank in the northbound lanes shortly after the road was constructed. The Ditzlers gave up their legal battle for a fair settlement last October. They settled with the county for $105,000 for 9.4 acres, which left them with approximately six acres.

Pete MacKay (R-5) is a staunch critic of Cohn and quick-take. MacKay and fellow board member Polly Berg (D-7) voted against the settlement because they felt

it wasn’t enough for what the Ditzlers were forced to give up and endure.

According to Myles Goddard, professor of Native American studies at the College of DuPage, the Ditzler property appeared to have been inhabited by ”prehistoric Americans” dating back 6,000 to 8,000

years. Goddard based his opinion on artifacts he examined on Ditzler’s former property in June 2000.

Jim Kohlhorst, project manager for Rockford Blacktop, refferred all questions to county officials.

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