By Adam Poulisse
Posted May. 7, 2016 at 9:55 PM
BELVIDERE — Boone County Board members, with the help of the people they represent, are forming an official county statement that addresses concerns about a controversial railroad project that would expedite freight service at the expense of thousands of acres of farmland.
County Board members dedicated time at four committee meetings last week to discuss and hear from the public how the Great Lakes Basin Railroad — a 275-mile route that would cut through Boone County and other areas in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin — could affect the resources and safety of their home turf.
The feedback will be sent to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory authority. The board will make a final decision to either approve or deny the project, or approve with conditions, following an environmental impact study. The deadline for feedback is June 15.
“We (have) to be careful about what we say because if we say, flat-out, ‘Don’t let it happen,’ and they decide they’re going to go ahead with it, we really have no place to talk," Planning, Zoning and Building Committee Chairman Denny Ellingson said during Wednesday's committee meeting. “We want to get this right and word it in a manner that says we are opposed."
The conversations at the committee level continue this week with the Public Safety Committee at 6 p.m. Monday, Finance Committee at 6 p.m. Tuesday and City-County Coordinating Committee at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. All meetings will take place in the Boone County Boardroom, 1212 Logan Avenue, Belvidere.
"It's more opportunity for the public to speak, and it gives board members the opportunity to come up with items the Surface Transportation Board needs to look at," County Administrator Ken Terrinoni said. "It's a way to engage the public, but also a way for board members to list all the things they want studied."
It all leads up to a public County Board retreat on Thursday, during which the board will meet as a whole and use the discussion at committee meetings to boil concerns down into one statement, according to board Chairman Bob Walberg. A board resolution stating the county's opposition to the project could be drafted.
"It's very clear that the board has a definite mandate to base their decision on evidence," Walberg said. "If we do a good job offering all our concerns, then there's a chance they might say the environmental impact is limiting for the project."
Board member Cathy Ward — who serves on the Administrative, Health and City/County committees — attended all committee meetings last week. She said it's important the county use the feedback to declare an official position against the railroad.
"Our people have been extremely eloquent (explaining) the loss of farmland, the loss of property, the dangers," she said. "I'm very proud of the people of Boone County who have stood up on this."
The LaSalle County Board in Illinois and Lake County Plan Commission in Indiana already have drafted resolutions in opposition to the project.
LaSalle County cites the loss of farmland and an increase in emergency-response times as key concerns.
The Lake County Plan Commission's resolution calls the proposed railroad "unwarranted and unnecessary."
Members of the Boone County Roads and Capital Improvements Committee are concerned about railroad crossings, drainage from construction, and other issues during the construction process.
"(Drainage could) have effects on the farmers' fields but roadways, too, and their deterioration," County Board member Karl Johnson said. "That’s an important aspect that often gets overlooked.”
Organizations such as Citizens Against the Great Lakes Basin Railroad Project have formed to provide a unified voice for the opposition. The group's signs can be found throughout the area. Hundreds of residents in Boone County and beyond attended a public scoping meeting on April 19, during which they shared their disapproval with members of the Surface Transportation Board.
Ang Daniels owns a 60-acre farm at Marengo and Denny roads in Garden Prairie; she raises corn, alfalfa, soybeans and cattle. The railroad, she said, would decimate most of the property that's been in her family for generations.
She's also concerned about delays in emergency-response times if the railroad cuts through the county.
"It'll be a (safety concern) if we don't do something to stop it, or say we're opposed," she told the Roads and Capital Improvements Committee.
Adam Poulisse: 815-987-1344; email@example.com; @adampoulisse