MONTICELLO - University of Illinois officials on Thursday will ask trustees for permission to sell farmland adjacent to Allerton Park, a move that was delayed for two years by controversy.
And the controversy's not over. Opponents of the proposed sale of up to 1,500 acres of farmland to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for prairie restoration say they'll take their opposition to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
"We're trying to schedule a meeting late in March with Mary Ann McMorrow," said Jim Reed, leader of the local opposition to the Allerton plan, which first surfaced two years ago but was shelved by trustees after an uproar.
"Even if the board approves it, she has veto power," Reed said.
According to the terms of the gift made by Robert Allerton in 1946, a land sale contract must be approved by the UI Alumni Association president, an office now held by Loren Taylor, and by the Supreme Court's chief justice.
Steve Schomberg, UI vice chancellor for public engagement and institutional relations, said he made the decision to seek trustees' quick approval because he wants to start negotiating the deal with the DNR.
"We're working to get an appraisal, and based on that, we'll negotiate an intergovernmental agreement that will address the issues of transition - taxes, fire management, safety questions, all things on our list," Schomberg said.
"This is a win-win situation," he said. "It will develop an environmental resource for the state and maintain and improve the income flow to the park. And it's not like we're getting out of farming. We're staying in a big way. There are more than 2,000 acres left."
Reed, a Deland farmer who lives not far from the park, said local concerns focus on the loss of tax money and fire hazards that would be created by the prairie grass.
"Fire safety is a big concern," he said. "There's only one entrance and exit to the park and the 4-H camp there, and if prairie fire got into the timber there with 200 kids at the camp and people at the Conference Center, fire and rescue personnel could have a big, big problem."
Tom Flattery, director of the DNR's Office of Realty and Environmental Planning, said prairie burns haven't really been a problem elsewhere.
"We have other prairies in the state, and that hasn't been an issue," Flattery said.
Reed said if the Allerton farmland goes off the tax rolls, the school district will lose $15,000 a year in income, and county taxing bodies will lose about $32,000 in direct income, but the total economic impact has been calculated at about $400,000 a year lost from supply sales, grain sales, crop insurance and other expenses of planting and harvesting crops.
"It will be a significant loss, like a small factory closing," Reed said.
Schomberg has said tax payments will continue during a four- to five-year prairie phase-in period.
Finally, Reed said, project opponents claim the park is chronically short of money because management has been poor, not because farm income wasn't enough to pay the bills.
"Park managers have yet to prove they have any need for this money, and even if they get it, they haven't shown any budget figures or other information about how they'll use it," he said. "They'll go through it like they did the farm income. It's an issue of overspending, not lack of income."
Leland "Bud" Lourash has plenty of concerns about the project, chief of which is that it will cover about 587 of the acres he's farmed for the UI for 18 years and force him to leave the home his family has occupied since 1985.
Lourash, who raises cattle on his farm, values the location and the deer, owls and wild turkeys that are a common sight in his yard. He also values the quality of the land he and his UI bosses have worked hard to improve, spending tens of thousands of dollars to build structures to prevent erosion and correct other problems in the rolling fields.
Lourash farms with his son, Terry, and they take pride in their work.
He cringes when he sees what's happening to 640 acres on the other side of the park adjacent to the road to Monticello, land the DNR purchased last year that's covered, even in midwinter, with towering mare's tail, a weed farmers fight to control.
"Our fields could look like that," he said grimly.
"Everyone looks at that land and says what a total disaster it is," Reed said. "Do we want more of that in Piatt County?"
"That's great habitat for turkeys and deer," said Tim Schweizer, a DNR spokesman.
Schweizer and Flattery said recreation has already started in that 640-acre field with archery deer hunting last fall, and it will be open this spring for turkey hunting.
"There's very little recreational opportunity for the public," Flattery said of the project. "Allerton Park proper is more controlled, but with this land associated with it, there could be other public uses, controlled hunting, bird watching, recreational paths that link the park with this property, picnic pavilions."
"We want to try to turn it back to the prairie it was. About 99.9 percent of the prairie in Illinois is gone. The only place you can find remnants is old cemeteries and railroad right of way."
He said although the most recent appraisal results aren't available yet, the Illinois Senate Republican caucus has earmarked $4.8 million for the UI to be transferred to the DNR, which would be consistent with a price of about $3,200 per acre.
Flattery said the department would pay regular taxes for five years, and the county government would be given a one-time payment of 7 percent of the purchase price - about $336,000 if it's $4.8 million - to make public improvements.
"We've tried to make this as palatable as possible," Flattery said.
He said the DNR's customary practice is to get a local community involved in planning for a new project so residents have some say about what recreational opportunities or uses they'd like to see there.
"Are we going to put a lodge on it? No." Flattery said. "People say we buy land and don't do anything with it. That's our intention, to have minimal impact. As stewards of the land, we try to do anything we can to protect the property."
He said it's impossible to say how long it would take to turn the fields farmed by Lourash and more than 800 acres farmed by Frank Hoffman back into a prairie.
"Some take three years, and some take 10," Flattery said.
He acknowledged that funding's a problem in Springfield right now so plans aren't cast in stone.
"Looking at the big picture, usually natural resources agencies are among the first for cuts," Flattery said. "Senior citizens, children and police take priority."
Sale would help pay for repairs
MONTICELLO - When the idea arose of turning Allerton farmland into what was then called the Tallgrass Project, officials said income from the farmland had not kept pace with the cost of maintaining and improving Allerton.
Steve Schomberg, UI vice chancellor for public engagement and institutional relations, has said one goal of the current transaction is to diversify the park's income flow to address a long list of repairs and improvements that need to be done to the formal gardens, statuary, home and conference center that were all once part of Robert Allerton's home and estate.
Among the most urgent projects: rebuilding an old single-lane bridge on the main road from Monticello approaching the park.
The road has been closed for months because the bridge is not structurally sound, and there's now only one back entrance to Allerton.
Schomberg will ask UI trustees for permission to draw up a contract for sale of up to 1,500 acres, the final acreage to depend on the appraised value of the land. The sale will be paid for with money secured by former State Sen. Stan Weaver, R-Urbana, from the Open Land Trust Act.
Goals, according to the document that will be reviewed by UI trustees, include:
- Strengthening the Allerton environmental mission by providing a unique environmental resource of substantial scale - woodland, savanna and prairie bordered by farmland.
- Diversifying the income stream supporting the park by shifting 40 percent of the agricultural assets into securities.
- Providing a research opportunity to study different ecosystems in proximity, including plant succession and bird repopulation.
The Open Lands Trust Act gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to "preserve and enhance Illinois' natural environment, create a system of open spaces and natural lands and improve the quality of life and provide recreational opportunities now and into the future," the proposal says.
"This partnership between the State of Illinois and the University of Illinois will provide the citizens of Illinois a unique wildlife habitat and public open space as well as enhance the environmental education programs at the University," it says.