Puri nomination raises development concerns

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-gZ0Q1pudxu.jpg’, ‘Photos by Jeff Havens’, ‘Southeast view (above) of where the north and south branches of the Kishwaukee River meet before merging with the Rock River. The property is owned by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. The Black Hawk Sierra Club wants the area to remain natural.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-GApVW6YU2M.jpg’, ”, ‘A number of different trucking companies load up with sand Aug. 16 at the quarry located at the airport. The road to access the quarry was recently repaved. Rockford Blacktop Construction Co., a subsidiary of the William Charles Group, entered into a trustee’s deed from a blind trust in 1980. The deed’s legal description corresponds with the quarry area, which is currently listed on tax records as being owned by the airport authority. ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-6k6VbIlx4W.jpg’, ”, ”);

Mayor Scott names controversial developer to serve on airport board

Developer and political heavyweight Sunil Puri was nominated by Rockford Mayor Doug Scott (D) to fill a vacancy on the Rockford Airport Authority Board. His nomination has observers wondering whether he or his fellow business partners have plans to develop what the Black Hawk Sierra Club considers a naturally scenic, historic and environmentally sensitive area—the area around the airport where the Kishwaukee and Rock rivers meet.

Puri’s First Ranger Petroleum LLC has 7.05 acres of property about one-quarter mile from the UPS distribution center at the airport. The land is at the corner of South Main Street and Beltline Road (see photo).

During a brief interview Aug. 12, Puri said he didn’t have time to comment about this article because he was leaving the U.S. for several weeks. The vacancy on the airport board was created by the departure of Edward Telling, who died Aug. 13. The Rockford City Council is scheduled to vote on Puri’s nomination at its Sept. 7 meeting.

John Strandin, communications director for the city, said Puri is a respected member of the community with business experience, who can “grow and develop” Rockford’s economy. Strandin added that he expected bipartisan support for Puri’s nomination because of Puri’s relations with both political parties.

Since 1994, Puri has personally contributed $215,107.47 worth of cash and services to local political campaigns. Between 1994 and 2002, Puri contributed $45,005 in cash and services to Scott’s campaign—$36,100 was cash.

One of Puri’s six businesses under the First Rockford name—First Rockford Group—contributed $66,574.26 to local Democrats and Republicans since 1996. Scott’s campaign received from First Rockford $3,550 worth of housing for Eric Lane in 2001—the first year Scott ran for mayor. Puri owns Ramada Suites, a hotel and conference center on Rockford’s far east side near Interstate 90.

On the federal level, Puri contributed $100,502 to campaigns since 1997. The Democratic National Committee received $25,000 from Puri on March 31, 2004. Rockford area U.S. Rep. Donald A. Manzullo (R-16) of Egan, has received a total of $4,000 from Puri since 1997 (see companion article “Rockford could benefit from O’Hare backup”).

Rockford airport officials hope increased air travel will bring economic development to the Rockford area, which has lost tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs since the 1980s.

Puri’s most conspicuous developments along East State Street and Spring Creek and Perryville roads have brought many low-paying service, retail and restaurant positions during the past 15 years. Puri’s supporters argue the development was a natural consequence of an area that is a regional retail market, and is in close proximity to a major transportation route, Interstate 90.

They add the types of jobs development brought were much needed in an area that has a lower number and percentage of highly-educated people compared with communities of similar size.

Some of Puri’s housing and commercial developments, which demand new road construction, have been criticized by environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, as “urban sprawl.”

Plans for development around the airport are already in motion. The $79.47 million “Build Winnebago County Partnership,” which was spearheaded by newly appointed Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, is now moving after the approval of non-voter approved road construction bonds.

Christiansen’s opponent in the fall election, Paul Gorski (D), opposed the road bond sale.

Christiansen persuaded county board members July 22 to approve the county’s largest sale of road bonds that totaled $28 million (see July 28 article “County Board: No referendum on road bonds”). Many proposed projects in Build Winnebago are road, bridge and sewer related within six miles of the airport—the same area where the Kishwaukee River and Rock River meet in southeast Rockford (see photo on page A1).

Christiansen’s campaign received $2,500 from Puri’s First Ranger Petroleum on June 30, 2004.

According to county tax records, the airport authority owns 150 properties, including 284 acres that include where the two rivers join (PIN 15-21-400-003). The 284 acres also include a large sand and gravel quarry (see photo on page A8).

Rockford Blacktop Construction Co., a subsidiary of the William Charles Group, entered into a trustee’s deed from a blind trust in 1980. The deed ‘s legal description corresponds with the 284 acres that are listed as currently being owned by the airport authority.

Stanley Campbell, columnist for The Rock River Times and conservation chairman for the Black Hawk Sierra Club, said the club “wants to protect the confluence of the Kishwaukee and the Rock rivers. It would be more of an economic jewel to preserve the environmental beauty and confluence of that area, which could be better than anything they may have planned.

“That is where the initial inhabitants of the Rock River valley settled. I urge them to preserve the beauty of the area,” Campbell said.

The multi-governmental agency-sponsored 2004 Green Communities Survey supports the Sierra Club’s views about concern for the area’s environment and placing more controls on developers (see March 10 article “Environmental survey results show concern”). The scientific survey, which was produced by Health Systems Research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford, also showed Winnebago County residents are willing to pay for protection of surface and groundwater.

Significantly more than any other individual named in the survey, Puri was the target of scorn in the comments section. One respondent to the survey wrote: “Stop the Puriville madness and urban sprawl (developers get whatever they want).”

Puri was a large beneficiary of the extension of North Perryville Road during the 1990s.

The area around the airport planned for road, bridge and sewer projects is within four miles of land formerly owned by Tom and Janice Ditzler.

County officials seized the Ditzlers’ property in 2000 after Scott, who was state representative at the time, authored “quick-take” legislation in the late 1990s.

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.

The terminus of Springfield Avenue at the intersections of Harrison Avenue and Illinois 2 is within two miles of the airport. An aerial photo of the Harrison Avenue-Springfield Avenue-Riverside Boulevard extension reveals a 17-mile half circle that connects the newly constructed road to the recently rebuilt Riverside Boulevard, which leads to Interstate 90 in Loves Park.

The area near East Riverside Boulevard and I-90 is also targeted for road and bridge construction projects by the Build Winnebago program.

In addition to the Springfield Avenue terminus being within two miles of the airport, it is also less than one-half mile from an area that was the proposed site for a riverboat casino on Illinois 2. The land is owned by Rock River Disposal Inc.—a subsidiary of the William Charles Group.

Puri, along with Charles J. Howard, head of William Charles, were members of Palace Development Co., which lobbied in the 1990s for the casino.

Rockford appoints three of the seven commissioner positions on the airport board. Each commissioner serves a five-year appointment. Winnebago County appoints two positions, and Machesney Park and Loves Park each appoint one commissioner.

After returning from his international trip, Puri said he would be in Rockford for the Sept. 7 vote on his appointment.

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