Expressway measure could put state in fast lane to grab land
(MCT) — When Judy Lucker-Mierzwa and her husband, Gene, moved into their "dream home" in rural Will County six years ago, they imagined savoring the solitude amid the cornfields while romping with grandchildren in their wooded backyard.
But ever since they discovered in February that their homestead was in the direct path of the proposed Illiana Expressway, they have been living with "our own personal nightmare," said Judy Lucker-Mierzwa.
Compounding the fear for the couple and hundreds of others who live along or near the 47-mile corridor is legislation pending in the Illinois House that would give the state controversial "quick-take" power to acquire land for the project.
Quick-take allows local governments to act fast in seizing land for public projects, skipping the possibly lengthy legal proceedings under eminent domain condemnation.
Anxiety levels are sky-high among many farmers and homeowners who could be affected by the expressway that would connect Illinois and Indiana. Public meetings have been standing room only. Property owners in Lake County, Ind., and Will County have been flocking to an interactive map at illianacorridor.org to see whether their homes, businesses, backyards or back 40s are within the path.
"There's no question property can be condemned for a highway. The state or whoever is going to get it," said Dan Tarlock, a professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. "The question is how much the landowner is going to get paid. Quick-take is designed to take first and then fight about the money."
Planners have envisioned an Illiana-like bypass for more than 100 years, but the growing number of intermodal freight terminals across Will County and resulting truck congestion have amplified the calls for an alternative to Interstate Highway 80 and arterial roads.
Two months ago, Illiana planners from both states recommended a route running from Interstate 55 at Wilmington to Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind. The corridor, known as B3, was the best of eight options, officials said.
Although the project is supported by Gov. Pat Quinn; his Indiana counterpart, Mitch Daniels; and the states' legislatures, there is no guarantee the Illiana will be built. Only $9 million has been allocated to study the project. The price tag for just the Illinois portion is estimated at $2.87 billion.
Legislation was passed last year calling for the Illiana to be developed as a so-called public-private partnership. This would allow a private entity to finance, construct and operate the Illiana as a tollway, much like the Spanish-Australian consortium that leases the Indiana Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway.
The legislation expressly prohibited the state from using quick-take, but a new bill introduced in February would give the Illinois Department of Transportation the power.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights, sponsored the quick-take legislation in the Senate, where it passed 44-8 on March 28. She said the measure is necessary to streamline the process so that ground can be broken for the Illiana by 2016.
"We want the tools to be in place so that the shovel goes in the ground as soon as possible," Hutchinson said, adding that it isn't intended as a "land grab."
Hutchinson, whose district includes much of the Illiana corridor, said the project is vital for job creation and economic development in southern Cook and northern Will counties.
Giving the state quick-take power, she said, would avoid any extended negotiations or court battles over land acquisition such as what the Illinois Tollway encountered in the 1990s when it began work to extend Interstate 355 from Bolingbrook to New Lenox.
Nevertheless, Hutchinson said, quick-take should "always be a last resort."
Opponents, including state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, say quick-take diminishes property owners' rights.
"It takes away the ability to negotiate," said Rezin, who supports the Illiana. "Eminent domain gives some negotiating power to landowners. If you cannot come to a compromise, then the process is thrown to the courts."
Although the measure moved quickly and quietly through the Senate, opponents are bracing for a fight in the House. Among the foes is the Illinois Farm Bureau, and most of the Illiana corridor is rural farmland.
"We are opposed to expansion of quick-take for the Illiana," said Kevin Semlow, the bureau's director of state legislation. "Basically, the government comes in, takes your land … and all you get to do is appeal (to the court) for how much it's worth."
The use of quick-take is not uncommon, experts said, and generally depends on how fast a local government needs to get started on a project. Most quick-take projects need specific approval from the General Assembly.
A DuPage County judge last year ruled that IDOT could quick-take the site of a strip club so the land could be used for a road-widening project.
Quick-take can prevent opponents of public works such as highways from using eminent-domain court battles to hold up the projects, experts say.
In the case of the proposed south suburban airport neat Peotone, quick-take has not been used, and land acquisition has been ongoing for years.
The next step in the Illiana process is the completion of a draft environmental impact analysis, which is due in July.
IDOT is cautioning property owners against drawing conclusions based on the Illiana's recommended route.
Planners are continuing to meet with communities and affected property owners and are still "refining" the corridor, said Steve Schilke, the IDOT project manager.
Although the corridor is 2,000 feet wide, only about 500 feet is needed for the roadway, Schilke said. Some property owners might end up only facing an expressway rather than having their homes taken.
That is likely to be the case in tiny Symerton, a hamlet in Will County near Wilmington, officials said.
Most of the village is within the Illiana footprint, and until recently, many in the town of 87 feared they might lose their homes, residents said.
"Good old Symerton is finally on the map, and now we're getting wiped out," is how Kelly Proffitt recalled local reaction.
IDOT said last week that the proposed corridor is just wide enough to spare the triangle-shaped town of 38 homes along the former Wabash railroad tracks.
Judy Lucker-Mierzwa said she believes the state is trying to position itself to grab the property for the Illiana, should funding come through.
"Just like with the (proposed Peotone) airport. There's no money for it, but they've taken people's property," Lucker-Mierzwa said. "This could hang over us for years."
The uncertainty leaves a dark cloud over their dream spot.
"We moved here to get into the rural quiet," Lucker-Mierzwa said. "You can hear the train whistle blowing 10 miles away. That's what we wanted."
The couple planted 3,000 trees on the property and designed the home to be energy-efficient. Inside, Gene Mierzwa's model airplanes hang from above and Civil War books line the walls.
The couple feel like they are in limbo, wary of investing more time or money into their home.
"What's the point of working on it if we're going to lose it?" Lucker-Mierzwa wondered.