Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Opponents react to reauthorized airport authority bill

The more things change, the more they stay the same; at least in eastern Will County.

Despite changes: Governor, Pat Quinn; State Sen. Toi Hutchinson; U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson; U.S. Sen. Roland Burris; and President Barack Obama; the recurring nightmare continues for landowners whose property was designated more than forty years ago as the location for a new airport.

Even with dire economic conditions, a state swimming in red ink, political turmoil, and no interest by airlines even when times were good, the state just can't let go of the project that has barely advanced in over forty years.

A new bill was introduced in Springfield Tuesday, Feb. 10 – SB 1346 — by Sen. A. J. Wilhelmi, D-Crest Hill, Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights, and Christine Radogno, R-Lemont; to establish the South Suburban Airport Authority.

The bill is similar to that which was proposed and propelled through the Senate last year by U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete who was then Senate Majority Leader. The bill died in the House, however.

If approved, the South Suburban Airport Authority would be created. It would consist of a 7 member board. Four would be appointed by the Will County Executive, with advice and consent of the county board. One would be a resident of Crete, Green Garden, Monee, Peotone, Washington or Will townships. The county executive also would name the board chairman.

One director would be appointed by the village presidents and trustees of Beecher, Crete, Monee, Peotone and University Park. The township supervisors and trustees of Bloom, Rich, Orland and Lemont townships would appoint another director.

The last director would be appointed by the chairman of the Kankakee County Board. Board members will be paid $10,000 annually for six-year terms.

If approved, the powers of the authority could commence as soon as July 1, 2010. The date was moved back by one year from the previous version of the legislation.

The authority states that it would serve as co-sponsor of the South Suburban Airport with the Illinois Dept. of Transportation (IDOT) until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues a Record of Decision (ROD) and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or until July 1, 2010, whichever is earlier.

At that time, according to the legislation, the authority shall enter into an agreement with IDOT to complete all ongoing projects, including the airport master plan. The authority would then assist the FAA with preparation of the EIS and ROD. When approved, the authority would serve as sponsor of the South Suburban Airport.

The authority would be responsible for preparing and publishing a map showing the airport's location. It shall show existing highways, property lines, and persons paying the most recent property taxes on land that will be needed for future additions.

If a map is filed with the county, landowners would be required to file a 60-day notice byregistered mail to the authority for alterations — even emergency repairs — on their property. The notice would be needed for all improvements in, upon, or under the land involved. They could not rebuild, alter, or add to an existing structure. After the notice, the Authority shall have 60 days after receipt of that notice to inform the owner of its intention to acquire all or part of the land involved; after which the Authority shall have the additional time of 120 days to acquire all or part of the land by purchase or to initiate action to acquire the land through the exercise of the power of eminent domain.

The authority will be responsible for all airport zoning, and will develop and enforce zoning regulations relative to airport hazards.

The legislation gives IDOT a green light to condemn property within the airport's inaugural boundary, "as quickly as possible," stating specifically "where acquisition is not voluntary."

And it isn't just the homeowners that live within the inaugural boundary in jeopardy. The Authority can, for a period of 10 years, control the land outside the inaugural airport boundary.

If the legislation is approved as written, most of the property in eastern Will County will be subject to restriction. For example, no property located within the ultimate airport footprint can change hands without receiving approval from the authority.

The bill assumes passage of an Eastern Will County Development District, which has not yet occurred.

If approved, the legislation makes the enacted authority the only entity authorized to develop, own, or operate the South Suburban Airport. It would supersede any local government, municipality, airport authority, or joint airport commission on that site.

The legislation is scheduled to take effect March 1, 2011.

The legislation is in direct competition with the effort by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. to provide an airport authority for the airport he has named the Abraham Lincoln National Airport.

Both Jackson and Will County have been battling for years over governance of an airport void of proven need or federal approval.

George Ochsenfeld, president of STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down) was astounded when he heard about another effort by legislators to establish an airport authority with broad, sweeping powers.

"It is absurd that they should waste time and energy on a project that doesn't have a prayer of happening," Ochsenfeld said, given the state of the airline industry and overall economic conditions.

He was surprised to learn that Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont was one of the senators introducing the bill. He would like to remind her that she should heed her own pre-election survey that indicated the majority of people in Will County oppose a new airport.

And, about newly-appointed Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights, Ochsenfeld said he is extremely disappointed that she would push something like this without recognizing or consulting with the long held opposition expressed by a large part of her constituency. He wonders if she has even visited the airport site.

Ochsenfeld said this bill is extreme. It outlines plans for not just condemnation, but taking property "as quickly as possible."

He can't help but try to second-guess the motive for introducing the legislation to establish an airport authority.

He speculated that senators sympathetic to Will County could be simply trying to derail the efforts of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. to build an airport outside his own district.

"If that is the case, we are tired of being the pawns in their corrupt political game," he said, expressing that there are better ways to stop Jackson and to stop the nightmare for eastern Will County residents at the same time.

"We had hope that a new administration would bring about change, yet it appears there is no change on the effort to continue funding the dysfunctional, ill-fated airport to nowhere," he said.

A similar perspective was echoed by landowner Jim Verduin, who has spent years involved in the struggle to protect his rural home.

"As usual our leaders are putting the cart before the horse," Verduin said. "This project is years away from any decision from the FAA, yet the three (potential) sponsors want to put huge restrictions on land use, zoning, and ownership not only for those living inside the inaugural footprint, but also the surrounding communities.

"Every municipality within 50 miles of this project should oppose this bill," Verduin said.

"I believe the main reason to propose this bill now is to stop Jesse Jackson and ALNAC from beating them to the punch. This is not reason enough for such a restrictive piece of legislation."
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