County quarry vote and city Rosecrance vote controversies

County quarry vote and city Rosecrance vote controversies

By Scott P. Richert

By Scott P. Richert

Freelance Writer

Tuesday, Nov. 20, marked another turning point in the ongoing battle by local activists to rein in the forces of government. After a couple resounding defeats (the Perryville Road extension, the cell-tower issue), city and county government have regained the upper hand. That night, the county board—ignoring the recommendation of its own zoning committee and the village of New Milford—approved a quarry between Baxter and Rotary roads in southeastern Winnebago County by a vote of 15-9, with three absences. (Board Member John Ekberg abstained, citing his personal financial interest in a quarry.) The proposal is essentially the same one that was rejected by the county board seven years ago.

Two years ago, many of the quarry opponents opposed and defeated the proposed state prison for women in the same southeastern corner of Winnebago County. The prison was advocated by State Rep. Dave Winters (R-69), Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) and Cohn.

The vote came at the end of County Board Chairman Kris Cohn’s whirlwind tour through Illinois that day, to announce her candidacy for the Republican nomination for Illinois Secretary of State.

At the same time as the county board vote, the Rockford Zoning Board of Appeals was meeting in the City Council chambers to discuss, among other items, a petition by Rosecrance Properties for a special-use permit for a “recovery home for young adolescent women between the ages of 14-18, not to exceed 12 residents plus staff in an R-1, Single-Family Residential Zoning District.” The property in question, 2415 E. State St., is one of the largest and most historic homes on State Street. Located on the western edge of Alderman Frank Beach’s ward (R-10) (just east of Pat Curran’s (R-2) ward), the home has been on the market for about nine months, not very long for a home valued above $200,000 in the city of Rockford. Reportedly, the home was almost sold once, but the sale fell through when the buyer could not sell his current home.

When Rosecrance announced its intention to purchase the home, it claimed that it would house six residents plus staff. The number has doubled, perhaps because of plans to move the residents of Rosecrance’s North Main and John Street home (the former Mulberry Inn) out to East State Street. (Rosecrance raised that possibility at the ZBA meeting.)

Phil Eaton, president/CEO of Rosecrance Health Network, said he thinks the young women who would reside in the home “deserve the best” and would be an asset to the neighborhood. He added that reclaiming our youth should be our highest priority, and that is more important than property values.

Beach supports Rosecrance’s petition, telling neighborhood homeowners at a meeting at the Salvation Army on South Rockford Ave. that there are only two options for the house: Rosecrance or an attorney’s office. (He did not explain why he prefers Rosecrance.) Rosecrance sent announcements of the Salvation Army meeting to residents in a mere one-block radius around 2415 E. State (though they apparently did not include anyone north of East State). Still, 35 people showed up on short notice.

Area residents, led by Craig Mentzer, the vice president of the Highland Neighborhood Association, have banded together to oppose the group home. Within a seven-block radius, there are already at least three similar homes: one in the 1700 block of East State, one on South Washington, and one

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on the north side of East State, within a block of the proposed Rosecrance home. The Highland Neighborhood Association was formed a couple years ago to maintain, as Mentzer says, “the residential integrity of the East State corridor from Fairview Avenue to SwedishAmerican”; like those who opposed Rosecrance’s efforts to place a treatment facility downtown, residents worry that the Highland neighborhood is developing a concentration of social services.

Mentzer presented the ZBA with 135 signatures opposing Rosecrance’s petition, which he and one other person had gathered in three hours the night before the meeting. Still, the ZBA voted unanimously to approve the special-use permit, even though one member noted that Rosecrance had led them to believe there was no opposition to the project. Another member, however, discounted the petitions, noting that some of the addresses of those who had signed were “up to three blocks away.”

Mentzer had 600 signatures “and climbing,” as of Tuesday night. Nonetheless, the petition passed Alderman Lenny Jacobson’s (D-6) Codes and Regulations Committee unanimously. Aldermen John Beck (R-12), Davey Johnson (R-4) and Nancy Johnson (D-8) comprise the rest of the committee. Rosecrance’s petition now goes before the Rockford City Council. Highland neighborhood residents have vowed to show up in full force at all City Council meetings between now and the vote, armed with their petitions and signs.

They are lucky that they don’t need to go before the county board. Under an order issued by Judge Mike Morrison in the wake of the Tom and Jan Ditzler case, citizens are no longer allowed to carry signs through the halls of the Winnebago County Courthouse. Technically, they can still display signs in the county board meeting room, but they are not allowed to bring the signs to the room. Quarry opponents who brought signs to the Nov. 20 meeting had them confiscated as they passed through the courthouse’s security checkpoint.

County employee Charles Jackson claims that the order was initially designed as a safety measure, because some of the Ditzlers’ supporters brought signs on sticks. He admitted that there are no safety issues with signs that do not have sticks attached. Still, he argued, he had to enforce the rules, and he claimed that he had told the security guards to confiscate any signs, because he had noticed signs at the county board meeting two weeks earlier. Quarry opponents, however, suspected that the sudden enforcement of the order was aimed at them.

The protest and vote also took place on Cohn’s announcement day.

Judge Morrison’s order also bars the consumption of food in the public areas of the county courthouse. When it was pointed out to Jackson that the county employee who was taping the meeting was eating, he stuck out his tongue to reveal a piece of hard candy and said, “Well, so am I.” When asked why Judge Morrison’s order was being enforced only against citizens, not county employees, he responded, “I agree, but I’m not going to argue with you.”

One bystander remarked, “Welcome to Winnebago County, where county employees are free to violate a judge’s order, while ordinary citizens are deprived of their free-speech rights.”

Scott Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles, the publication of the Rockford Institute.

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