Amendment 7 added to 2030 plan—Development ‘firewall,’ or open door?

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

After having voted 18-8 to eliminate a proposed and controversial Amendment 7 just prior to adoption of the Winnebago County 2030 Land Resource Management Plan May 28, the County Board voted 20-3 Aug. 13 to include the measure.

“The credit for this huge reversal really goes to Randy Olson (R-1), Chairman Scott Christiansen (R), George Anne Duckett (D-12) and both the Republican and Democratic caucuses,” said Frank Schier, editor and publisher of this paper. “It was really a bipartisan decision. Randy convinced the Republican Caucus. George Anne and the Democratic Caucus were kind enough to let me present the case for Amendment 7 Tuesday before the vote. I lobbied the swing votes just before the meeting. They really came through. Unfortunately on this issue, the environmental community did not come through because all of the swing votes told me they had received zero e-mails or phone calls on this crucial firewall vote against sprawl in the western part of Winnebago County. With this final vote on the 2030 land-use plan, ultimately, through everyone’s efforts, the environmental community received 100 percent of what we requested. In politics, that’s a miracle. With great love, thanks to all who courageously worked so hard with good intentions, and the public staff and officials who listened and did the right thing.” (See related editorial “Back to school” on page A1)

The 2030 plan is the county’s vision for growth during the next two decades, but “Amendment 7” is intended to ensure smart growth, not sprawl.

While the land-use plan was still in development at the committee level, the City of Rockford proposed the amendment as a means to prevent leapfrog development, reliant on septic systems, in areas along Meridian Road. Instead of being classified as low-density residential, which would allow for development on septic, the City of Rockford asked the land instead be kept agricultural.

Although most of the area lies beyond Rockford’s western mile-and-a-half facility planning area (FPA)—thereby leaving the city with no authority in the matter—Rockford officials indicated they hope to eventually annex the parcels, which are bordered by Kelly, Meridian, Montague and Weldon roads, as well as those bordered by Centerville, Meridian, Simpson and Tipple roads.

Todd Cagnoni, a city planner, stressed the significance of the amendment as a way to ensure orderly development with connection to sewer and water, which would cost taxpayers significantly less than having to later retrofit subdivisions built on septic systems.

Because there is no border agreement in place, some board members think the Village of Winnebago could beat Rockford to the punch, however, causing some reluctance toward the city’s wishes.

But Dave Yeske (R-2) argued, instead of leaving the county on the hook for providing sewer under a low-density designation, let the municipalities fight over it.

“If a business does locate out there, we need to get sewer to those businesses,” he said. “To leave it agriculture allows the municipalities to deal with it. It’s between Winnebago and Rockford.”

Angie Goral (D-7), a Realtor, adamantly fought for the low-density residential classification, arguing an agricultural designation would further encourage exodus to the Rockton and Roscoe areas, as well as leave the door open for any type of development.

“If you want to go back to agriculture, I understand that,” she acknowledged. “But the other thing I understand about agriculture is the fact the City of Rockford, or anyone else, can come in and have that zoning changed.

“If you look at the City of Rockford’s 2020 plan, they have already stated that in that particular area, they are looking for urban renewal, and going into housing to increase their tax base,” Goral added. “If we make this low-density, and we keep it low-density, at least we would have some control over the type of subdivisions that would be going in there.”

Conversely, Paul Gorski (D-5) argued the agricultural designation would allow board members to review all proposed developments henceforth, “and at that time make good decisions.”

Goral pointed to a number of subdivisions already in the area, and argued that by keeping the land low-density residential, the county would have more say as to what is developed there.

While Amendment 7 supporters feel an agricultural designation will prevent leapfrog development, Goral argued low-density would.

Referring to existing subdivisions cited by Goral, Steve Schultz (R-2) disagreed.

“I believe what’s there already represents leapfrog development in its present form,” he asserted, “and [low-density residential] will also encourage development on septic.”

After Amendment 7 was vanquished at Goral’s urging May 28, Randy Olson (R-1), who represents the affected areas, led the charge to reinstate the measure.

When the amendment originally came back before the Zoning Committee, committee members voted to refer it to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a hearing. The state’s attorney’s office advised, however, a hearing for an amendment to the 2030 plan was not in order, and the matter went back to the Zoning Committee, which voted 3-2 to recommend denial to the full board.

Despite what appeared to be a tough sell, Olson lobbied fellow board members to vote favorably on the amendment.

Noting he and Tom Owens (R-1) represent the district in question, and that they both wanted the amendment in place, Olson told colleagues, “I think we’re best equipped to decide on what directions that area could go.”

The city had grudgingly accepted the board’s May 28 ruling, but still did a little pushing behind the scenes.

In an Aug. 12 letter, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) asked Goral to reconsider her position.

Although Goral has stated nearby sewer could be extended to include the affected area, Morrissey noted, “Much of this area is located in the Rock Creek Basin, in which there are currently no plans for major sanitary sewer service, with the exception of what is served through Stormont Highland development, and no plans for public water facilities.

“To ensure that future development takes place in an orderly fashion, and to prevent leapfrog development, I believe it is imperative that the land represented by Amendment #7 be planned as agricultural,” he added, noting it is “critical” for the city and county to work together while planning future development.

Morrissey acknowledged Goral’s assertion of middle-income families leaving the city for nearby communities.

“This has put increased pressure on existing neighborhoods to remain stable, and will continue to do so until we change the development practices,” Morrissey stated. “These subdivisions have also put a financial burden on our community as we have to invest in retrofits and public infrastructure upgrades, because they were not a part of the original subdivision.”

Despite a strong 18-8 showing in May, Goral’s Aug. 13 opposition to Amendment 7 was whittled down to herself, Mel Paris (D-8) and Dave Tassoni (D-7), and the amendment was adopted.

From the Aug. 19-25, 2009 issue

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