Lodge residents at odds over proposed corn processing plant

Lodge residents at odds over proposed corn processing plant

Until last month, Lodge was just a small, unincorporated Piatt County village on Illinois 10.

But since a Chicago company proposed building a white corn processing plant at the edge of town, the topic has embroiled the neighborhood in a passionate controversy that's pitted neighbors against each other.

Now, "No Corn Mill" signs line Route 10 – and a group of Lodge residents hired a lawyer in hopes of stopping the plant.

It started when Phil and Tenna Knox planned to sell 40 acres of land to El Milagro of Chicago and its grain supplier, Clarkson Grain of Cerro Gordo.

Clarkson was working with El Milagro to build a white corn processing plant in the area. The companies liked the Knoxes' land because it's near Interstate 72 and natural gas and electric infrastructure, Tenna Knox said.

Molinero Inc., a subsidiary of El Milagro, would operate the plant. It would convert white corn into masa, a dried flour used to make tortillas and tortilla chips.

The Knoxes filed an application with Piatt County to get a special-use permit because their land is zoned for agriculture. Adjacent landowners received notices of the application in the mail. The letter showed the first sign of something amiss, opponent Angie Wrench said.

Clarkson Grain hosted a neighborhood meeting in mid-May about the plant. Many Lodge residents attended and quickly realized they opposed the plant.

They held neighborhood meetings, started researching similar plants and discovered many reasons they don't want the plant built near Lodge. They also circulated petitions, created a Web site with their research and attended board meetings together, wearing stickers for unity.

Trish Patrick, who lives across the street from the site, is especially concerned that Lodge will become an industrial area.

"I think once you have one thing in, it's a lot easier the second time to get something passed," Patrick said, referring to industrial zoning.

She's afraid she won't see wildlife near her home any more and that the plant's lights will block out the stars. And if she decides to move away, she doesn't think anyone will buy her house.

But Tenna Knox and Clarkson Grain officials both believe the plant would benefit the area. Knox said she and her husband talked to engineers before agreeing to sell because they live just down the road.

"I live closer to this than 90 percent of the people who are objecting," Tenna Knox said. "If it was going to be offensive, I wouldn't have agreed to it."

Rick Bucker, Clarkson Grain's general manager, said his company spoke with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois State Water Survey to ensure the plant's plans for water use and wastewater disposal don't pose problems.

Maggie Carson, spokeswoman for the IEPA, said Molinero would need a discharge permit for its lagoon. But she can't comment on anything pollution-related until design plans are submitted to the agency.

And Allen Wehrmann, the director of the Center for Groundwater Science at the water survey, said the plant will use about 30 gallons of water per minute, the equivalent of three or four houses' use. It would tap into the Mahomet Aquifer, Wehrmann said, but shouldn't affect Lodge residents' wells.

The Piatt County Soil and Water Conservation District also evaluated the Knoxes' land and will report to the county zoning board of appeals and county board.

Resource conservationist Jonathon Manuel said his report is neutral and purely factual, but according to a scoring system created by the county board, the land qualifies for a high level of protection because of its rich soil.

El Milagro has emphasized it wants to be welcomed in whatever area it decides to build.

"That's our first goal," said Manuel Lopez, a member of the family that owns El Milagro. "We do want to be a good neighbor."

That's why his company and Clarkson Grain requested the Knoxes' special-use permit be tabled last week at a Piatt County Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. The request caught Lodge residents by surprise; many were expecting the debate to drag late into the night. They filled a county courtroom that evening, cramming into benches and spilling over into aisles and the hallway.

The companies are considering locations in Piatt and other counties, Bucker said. They hadn't filed any new zoning applications as of Friday afternoon. If they do, the applications will be considered, along with the Lodge application, at a zoning board of appeals special meeting at 7 p.m. July 31 at the Piatt County Courthouse.

If the permit is approved in Lodge, the opponents are ready to sue for the devaluation of their land. If it's not, Tenna Knox said she's looking to livestock for the site – possibly a hog farm, which won't require a permit.

The controversy has divided the neighborhood, Knox said, but she said many of her neighbors support the plant. And the same has happened on the other side.

"I've met a lot of great neighbors," Wrench said.

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