SPRINGFIELD – An Illinois Appellate Court ruling in favor of St. Joseph-area landowners could have an effect on drainage districts statewide.
Last December, Judge Holly Clemons denied a request by the Upper Salt Fork Drainage District to raise the annual tax levy permanently from $1.15 to $5 an acre for landowners. She allowed a one-year increase for the district to pay consultants, Midwest Streams Inc., to study the best way to maintain the flow of the river, then for any actions to adjust its course.
On Tuesday, three appellate judges in Springfield unanimously upheld Clemons' ruling.
Plans for the work now are on hold, according to the district's attorney, until its board can meet to discuss the ruling.
The stream runs about 21 miles, from Rantoul to about 3 miles south of St. Joseph, where it empties into the Salt Fork River.
Jeffrey Tock, an attorney for the district, declined comment Friday, other than to say "they made their ruling."
Six rural St. Joseph landowners originally sued the district objecting to the assessment increase because they said the district failed to provide enough information about the project to justify the increase and failed to produce a plan showing where any permanent structures would be built as well as how many trees would be destroyed as a result.
Tock had argued the courts don't have authority to scrutinize the method proposed by the drainage district.
Clemons rejected the full tax increase. She allowed the district to assess $55,000 for one year to pay for a study of the project, but limited the permanent tax assessment to no more than $28,000 a year, less than one-third of what the district had requested.
The drainage district board appealed Clemons' decision to the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield.
"In our interpretation of that statute, we conclude that the legislature intended greater protection for the taxpayer," wrote Appellate Judge Thomas Appleton.
The court ruled that drainage districts need to provide evidence justifying increases in annual assessments.
Clark Bullard, a board member of Prairie Rivers Network, said the decision was a victory for the landowners and environmentalists, and could establish precedent throughout the state.
He said the court prevented the district from making the increase annual and permanent.
"It's a very important change in the way drainage districts do business. This makes them much more accountable," Bullard said.
Bullard said some of the consultants' ideas had some merit, but did not show the full environmental impact.
"Illinois law requires drainage projects be conducted with prior court approval," Cecily Smith of Prairie Rivers Network said in a press release. "In this case, the drainage district proposed construction projects, but tried to label them maintenance projects, in an attempt to avoid court oversight."