URBANA – Upper Salt Fork River farmers, other landowners and environmentalists moved a little closer to agreement Wednesday, but all said more movement is needed.
The Upper Salt Fork Drainage District is asking a court to increase its authority for annual tax assessment, from $1 to $5 per acre.
In 2004, the district used a $335,000 assessment on landowners for the first phase of the project, about 12 miles from U.S. 136 south to County Road 1850N, about a mile north of St. Joseph.
The second phase, for which the new assessment is sought, would continue the project between St. Joseph and Sidney. The $5 an acre assessment would generate more than $80,000 a year, and the second phase is expected to cost in the same range as the first.
Judge Holly Clemons held a brief hearing Wednesday morning where three dozen interested parties spoke. But the law requires written objections to the district's request for authority to tax as much as $5 an acre for maintenance of the river, which the petition describes as a farm ditch.
One taxpayer, Frank DiNovo of St. Joseph, presented a written objection to the district's petition promising not to remove trees from banks "without specific court authorization" or "except as needed to gain access to the ditch."
He said his land in the district had trees removed for stream maintenance in 1995, and some of them have regrown. He plans to put in more trees at his own expense and asked for the court to require consultation with landowners before removing trees.
DiNovo's objections will be heard at 3 p.m. Oct. 26 in Clemons' courtroom.
Jeffrey Tock of Champaign, the attorney for the district, said his clients want to work with landowners to assuage concerns about environmental damage.
On Wednesday, he stipulated in his petition that Midwest Streams Inc., the district's consultants, work with landowners, designing changes in the stream's path in accordance with their wishes.
He also stipulated that there would be 30 days notice for each of the affected landowners before work on their property.
He said all of Midwest Stream's changes in the flow of the stream would be in place for a minimum of a decade.
Clark Bullard of the Prairie Rivers Network said in a press release that his group is pleased that the district has decided to abandon plans to dump broken concrete rip-rap in 17 locations where banks are failing along the recently dredged river between Rantoul and St. Joseph, and to explore less environmentally damaging ways to stabilize banks; improve flow of sediment by relying on natural forces so less dredging is needed; and develop a long-term maintenance plan.
But his group advocates time limits on the district's increased taxing authority. He also called for holding another court hearing to increase the annual maintenance levy after the consultants plan is complete and costs are known.
David Paul, who owns land on the Salt Fork south of St. Joseph, said he had hoped to speak out at Wednesday's hearing.
He said his homestead has suffered from effects of dredging north of him.
"We're actually losing land" to erosion, he said after the court hearing. Paul said his rights as a landowner would be "trampled" by giving the district power to cut down trees on his property.