To say that Springfield is going ga-ga over a comprehensive plan would be an exaggeration in more ways than one.
Peppered with quotes from Myron H. West, a planner who helped author the city’s first plan in the 1920s, the plan that soon will be up for a council vote is as much an endorsement of the past as it is a blueprint for the future. Long on visions (“The Springfield of 2037 will be a more attractive community,” the draft plan says.) but skimpy on specifics, it’s the sort of thing governments check off to-do lists, then ignore as soon as a developer who wants to build any old thing comes along.
Which brings us to last week’s committee-of-the-whole city council meeting.
Proceedings began with a presentation by Fire Chief Barry Helmerichs, who proposed spending $105,000 on gadgets that will turn red lights green so that fire trucks can more quickly reach Piper Glen and Panther Creek, which were cornfields not so long ago and now are home to folks who live a considerable distance from the nearest firehouse. No one asked why the city issued building permits for houses that are seven minutes or more away from a fire station. Instead, several aldermen endorsed spending money for the light-changing widgets, with Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen and Ward 2 Ald. Herman Senor encouraging the chief to spend even more than he was proposing so more trucks can be equipped with the doodads.
“Anything we can do for safety, I’m pretty much on board with the chief,” Senor said.
Then came a proposal to build 50 duplexes on the far west side of Springfield. The council had rezoned the property and approved the development in 2013, but a drawing that shows where lots would be located had reached its expiration date, and so council approval was again needed so construction can begin.
This is pretty much a technicality, Gordon Gates, attorney for developer Corky Joyner, assured the council: Really, you have no discretion. Corporation counsel James Zerkle, who at last check co-owned Town and Country Shopping Center with Joyner, said that his office had looked into the matter and produced a legal opinion. When Theilen asked whether the council would create legal liability – a way of asking will we get sued -- if it failed to approve even part of the project, Zerkle didn’t answer yes or no.
“The short answer on that is, it depends if there are objective, specific reasons or issues related to other ordinances,” Zerkle responded. “Absent that, it can clearly create liability, based on the case law.”
There was a very good reason for the city to block the project. Lenhart Road, a narrow lane that would handle traffic from the 100 living units, already is overburdened. Even Gates acknowledged such when Senor, whose children frequent a church in the area, said, “I do know the condition of the road.”
“It’s terrible,” Gates interjected.
About the best the city could promise neighbors was to include an estimated $5 million in road improvements on the city’s five-year road plan, which was better than not including it at all when the city originally approved the development four years ago. But, like a comprehensive plan, a road plan comes with no guarantee that anything actually will get done.
Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin argued that the city can block the development on the grounds that the road is substandard. From a common sense perspective, it is difficult to argue that allowing a development that would create an estimated 740 vehicle trips per day on a bad road is a smart move. From an economic perspective, the math doesn’t add up, either. Turning farmland into duplexes adds nothing to municipal coffers but property taxes while creating demands for new roads and street maintenance, not to mention adding to demands for police and fire protection. In short, sprawl is a money loser for cities like Springfield, which make ends meet with business and sales taxes.
Still, aldermen who noted that the city approved plans four years ago said they had no choice, as if the city, once it does something stupid, must stick with stupid. Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath called out McMenamin, who’s been blasting his colleagues for gathering at Saputo’s in September to collect campaign contributions from Joyner, labor unions and others with a financial stake in the development game (“Check, please,” Oct. 5, 2017).
“It’s all because there’s a personal agenda going on here,” Redpath said as he looked at McMenamin. “We all know what that’s about, don’t we alderman?”
“Let’s go deeper into the personal agenda, then,” McMenamin shot back. “Did Mr. Corky Joyner give a $1,000 check to eight aldermen seated in this council chamber…?” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer, who got one of those checks and was chairing the meeting, had heard enough. “Alderman, you’re out of order!” Hanauer barked while repeatedly banging his gavel. But the point was made. City politicians have long relied on developers for campaign cash, and it doesn’t look very good when contributors get their way while constituents get stuck with sprawl.
As this issue of Illinois Times was going to press, aldermen were set to take a final vote on the proposed duplexes. While the outcome was unclear as of press time, there is time to contemplate the city’s comprehensive plan.
“Property currently undeveloped, particularly properties in outlying or planning boundary areas, should not be developed in the absence of necessary infrastructure.” That’s what the draft plan headed for the council says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.