I have folders labeled “Urban Sprawl & Controlled Growth” that contain over 200 clippings and articles about the above subjects. I have also read half a dozen books on the issues. I serve on Peoria Counties “Planned Growth Policy Committee” and helped write “another” Peoria County Growth Plan last year. But for many reasons we don’t always follow the plan. In March 2005, a request was made to the full County Board by a developer to re-zone approximately 23 acres of land currently zoned agriculture and timber into a residential classification. The developer wanted to parcel 23 acres into approximately 5 acres lots for development of new homes. This development request came to the full board for approval after the County Planning & Zoning and the County Land Use Committee had already approved this re-zoning. These 5 acre parcels of land would need their own septic tanks and private wells as neither utility has been expanded into that area and may never expand to this area of Peoria County. When the question came up for discussion to approve or deny, I indicated my confusion as to why Peoria County is constantly letting growth continue to “sprawl” in Peoria County while expressing our concern with the City of Peoria who many see and believe, is “sprawling”. Why are we re-zoning more and more agricultural land into small stand alone residential clusters that must rely on septic tanks and private wells and spread county basic services so that we need to add more government that does not have the tax base to support the “sprawl”? After discussion, the re-zoning was approved by the County Board on a vote of 10 yeas and 7 nays. That was an improvement over the last vote to re-zone from agriculture to residential which was 16 yeas and 2 nays. 7 nays must believe we are not following our own controlled growth plan. I know that residences pay more property tax than farm land; it is reasonable that they should because they require more services. City dwellers often think that the farmland owners do not pay enough property taxes but that is not a popular subject with farmland property owners.
On July 2, 1997, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission hosted a dinner at which the keynote speaker was David Rusk, a man who the JS called the “renowned urban planning expert.” Among the five guideposts on which Mr. Rusk advised the audience was “You must not let growth occur beyond your boundaries if you can help it”. Mr. Rusk also stated that while new curbs, wider streets and green space may make older city neighborhoods more pleasant places to live, they should not be regarded as investments that will draw-or keep-the middle class. People flee neighborhoods for the same reason they move in, primarily, schools and safety”. I attended this meeting and was pleased to hear him advising us to “in-fill” the city as we move outward to control costs of overextended services and ease traffic congestion. He noted that Peoria had shown little population growth yet has added thousands of acres that must be serviced by the city – utilities, public safety, infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, lighting, traffic control and many other things provided to older communities. New schools, parks and libraries usually follow new “sprawl”. These necessary entities add additional cost to the taxpayer. Rusk advised us on things like holding property taxes at inflation levels and to resist the temptation to boost capital spending by a like amount and “curb the appetite for new projects”.
In September, 2000, Mr. Rusk was invited back again and said that “urban sprawl here is out of control, lacking the population gains to justify it. He advocated a regional land use plan in which all three counties – Peoria, Woodford and Tazewell – would be partnered.
The JS said and I quote “local leaders didn’t heed Rusk’s message three years ago, will we bring him back in 2003 before an audience of the same nodding heads, ( I attended this meeting also and was a nodding head), who will then go back to “business as usual” the second he boards his plane out of town”? The JS continues “Regionalism is where it’s at, cooperation is where it’s at, and sharing the pain and gain toward the common goal of a healthy community is where it’s at”.
In 2000, County District #11 elected me to the Peoria County Board because of my business background; they believed I would work with this public entity to emulate a successful business model. The finances of the County were not in very good shape with the General Fund actually a minus one and half million dollars. Basically, I believe they elected me to help balance the budget, make this governmental body more efficient and not spend more than our tax base could afford, support controlled growth, contain property and sales taxes, help with the “in-fill” of our cities and villages, and help the county stick to the “core” businesses of government. Also, those who elected me thought I might help heal a sometimes “contentious” County Board and that I would support the county in working with other public and private bodies not only in Peoria County but in and with our neighboring counties.
Unfortunately or fortunately, government does not work exactly like a business. My success has been limited for many reasons as I am one of eighteen board members whose vote counts the same as mine. Also, up to this point, despite our overtures, some public entities have not shown much willingness to work with Peoria County. However, the Peoria County Board is hopeful that the recent city election will improve our relationships.
Peoria County tries to make common sense decisions, but we are like most governmental boards, we do not always agree with each other. But we agree on most of the important actions. We usually agree to make the playing field “level” for all. But if we deny things like re-zoning to accommodate “special interests” we are often led to believe that those we deny requests that the majority of us believe are not in the best interest of the common good, then those denied will take their business elsewhere. Therefore, like all governmental bodies under pressure to “grow the tax base”, we sometimes may make decisions unpopular with some of the electorate and perhaps not in the best interests of the community.
So much controversy over controlled growth or sprawl is understandable because as shoes come in many sizes, people are most happy with the shoe that fits. Not all growth fits all communities and economies. I don’t profess to know all the answers, but I do know this, the cost of government with all its beneficiaries is getting out of hand. While we still live in probably the freest country in the world, we will not be able to sustain the cost of more government needed to allow everyone to do what they want to do. The more government and governmental services required will eventually limit the freedom we have now. Consolidation of government bodies and functions, controlled growth, electing leaders who (and encouraging more qualified candidates to run) look at the whole instead of building their own fiefdoms, may be Peoria’s major hopes for the future. I believe that as shown in last week’s election in Peoria, the voter and taxpayer will continue to force the issue.
Almost everything Mr. Rusk said on his two visits to Peoria was correct, but nodding heads don’t get the job done. We don’t need Mr. Rusk to come back. In fact we don’t need consultants to tell us what we are doing right or how we can do better. We just need leadership that the community can believe and trust. We have them in abundance, they just need to step forward which takes fortitude and may “ruffle the feathers” of some of their buddies. Knocking common sense into the heads of many of Peoria’s leaders will result in a more successful community by 2020. We need these leaders but they must be more inclusive and present solutions that represent the will of the people and for the best interests of the whole community. Nodding heads and locking the out the non elite will not get the job done. After all, is money and greed what it’s all about?
Many in the community believe that some heads were just knocked and believe the future looks a little brighter. Swallow some ego and accept some common sense opinions and facts that you and your buddies may not agree with. This is becoming a world quite different from your college sororities or fraternities. And Peoria is part of that world!!