Environmental survey results show concern

• Green Communities survey respondents support better planning and land-use controls

According to a scientific survey conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine in Rockford, Winnebago County residents have “a high level of concern for the environment.”

The survey shows residents want more controls placed on developers, will pay for protection of surface water and groundwater and will support renewable energy.

Joel Cowan, assistant dean at UIC-Rockford and demographics researcher, said 5,750 Green Communities surveys were mailed last fall to Winnebago County households, of which 1,033 were returned. Cowan said the response rate of 18 percent was large for any type of survey, and was generally representative of the county’s population.

The survey, which was sponsored by a group of 12 local government and non-governmental organizations, found respondents were not pleased with land development in the county and were upset with suburban sprawl. Cowan said the respondents support controls on land use, want better land-use planning, and do not want to leave development to be determined primarily by the developers.

Cowan summarized the survey results as follows:

• Respondents were not pleased with past land development practices in the county, and were upset with suburban sprawl.

• Support controls on land use, want better land-use planning, and do not want developers to be the primary decision-makers about how and what land is developed.

• Generally do not want new taxes. However, priorities for additional taxes would be for water quality protection and renewable energy.

• Favor environmental impact fees.

• Areas with existing infrastructure, such as downtown and established neighborhoods should be developed before other areas.

u Expressed desire to preserve open space, farmland, natural areas and wetlands.

• Want to acquire more natural areas for open space.

• Want more controls placed on smoking, noise, and to ensure food safety.

• Lack of support for spending money on beautification projects.

• Expressed a high level of concern for the environment.

• Showed a lack of agreement on whether the local environment is better or worse than in the past.

In response to criticism that the survey may be biased, Cowan said: “It’s a good sampling of the community. Some people would contend that we were likely to hear from the supposed ‘tree huggers’ or those who want to take environmental action, and there may be some truth [to that argument] but again it’s a broad view.” In other words, the respondents’ views may be considered reflective of Winnebago County residents’ views, Cowan said.

However, Cowan pointed out the following exceptions:

• Fifty-seven percent of the respondents were male and 41.4 percent were female, compared with the county’s 48.9 percent male and 51.1 percent female.

• Eighty-five percent of respondents own their home, and 66 percent have lived in the county continuously for 25 years or more.

Respondents’ median age was 56 years compared with the county’s median age of 48 years.

• More than 33 percent of respondents had a college degree compared with the county’s 20 percent.

• Response was slightly higher in suburban and rural areas than in a city.

The survey results appear to contradict county leaders’ plan to catalyze the local economy by borrowing $50 million to build new roads, especially as the plan applies to extending Perryville Road north of Illinois 173.

Judy Barnard, deputy county administrator for Winnebago County and point person for the survey, said via e-mail that a draft form of the results will be “taken to the community through some town hall meetings for additional input and any changes or deletions … and will be used as a tool for comprehensive planning.”

Barnard was not available to answer question about where a copy of the original 163-page report will be available for review.

The following are typical respondents’ comments from the survey:

• “As a community, we should be much more concerned with what development is doing. I can’t begin to explain how sad it has been to see pastures, fields, stands of forest destroyed and graded into parking lots, big box stores, and fast food we don’t need. We allow a minority with wealth to destroy our towns, redirecting population flow, causing traffic congestion, blighting over half of Rockford while they continue building.”

• “Stop the insane development of farm/open land for residential subdivisions and strip malls. This causes traffic congestion, road overuse damage, erosion problems, water contamination, overcrowded schools, inner city decay—shall I keep going?”

• “Taxes and laws need to be structured to favor reuse over new development. For example, impact fees on new development, low interest loans, and tax credits for redevelopment.”

The survey was a collaborative effort between Winnebago County; City of Rockford; City of Loves Park; Winnebago County Forest Preserve District; Rockford Park District; Natural Land Institute; Burpee Museum of Natural History; Four Rivers Environmental Coalition; Rockford Area Council of 100; Neighborhood Network; Winnebago County Health Department; and University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

Funding was provided through a grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

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