Listen to this article

We had to reinforce the Mailbag this week to secure the heavy volume of questions and answers about a burn pile just outside the Champaign city limits, a whole lot of construction in Savoy and south Champaign, a new notice on the old Urbana Landmark Hotel and the condition of the gardens at the University of Illinois Arboretum.

Also questions about the last hanging administered by Champaign County, an infestation of moths, interesting ag experiments at the University of Illinois, a vacated house in central Champaign and an unusual statue just off Interstate 57.

Champaign Township burn pile

"There is what can best be described as a county burn pile on Kearns Drive in west Champaign. The smoke from this burning is so bad that last year someone came around with a petition in an attempt to stop it. Nevertheless, the burning continues and is horrible at times, like today when it is so hot and humid. There are businesses in the 3800-4000 blocks of West Springfield Avenue that cater to people with health issues. Is there anything that can be done about this nuisance?"

This is an interesting situation, prompted mostly by the recent tornado that felled or damaged trees in the Rolling Acres subdivision outside of Champaign.

That neighborhood is in Champaign Township, and the burn pile you mention is at the Champaign Township Highway Department yard at 3900 Kearns Drive.

Township Highway Commissioner Keith Padgett said the small tornado created about 70 truckloads of tree branches and other storm-related debris.

His dilemma, he said, was hauling 70 truckloads of debris to th

e Landscape Recycling Center in Urbana (at a cost of about $130 per truckload, plus gas and time spent) or burning it at the township yard, which is equipped with an air curtain burner that is designed to burn large volumes of wood while reducing smoke and particulate matter.

Padgett acknowledged that he burned tree limbs at the township yard from last Friday through Wednesday of this week and that there may have been occasions when there was smoke in the area from the burning.

"If we had to truck away all of that it would have cost our residents a lot more money," he said.

Under a 2016 agreement with Champaign County, Champaign Township residents who live within 1,000 feet of the Champaign city limits are prohibited from burning vegetation. But the township is permitted to burn much of their yard waste.

Steve Kasak, who lives on Berniece Drive in Rolling Acres, said he was glad the township provided the service.

He said a large maple and a large linden on his property were destroyed and that "there was debris higher than cars stacked up all up and down this street" after the storm.

"We can burn ourselves in our yards but rather than do that I would prefer to see them take it someplace where they dispose of it in a better method," Kasak said. "I used to have a burn pile in my garden but about 10 years ago I decided, after I found out you could take debris out there, that they dispose of it in a fairly clean manner.

"I think that's better than all of us burning out here, where all of your ashes could go into your neighbors' yards on occasion when the wind changes. I think they're doing a good job."

Urbana Landmark Hotel

"Why is there now a 'Not Approved for Occupancy' sign on the old Urbana-Lincoln Hotel? It is signed by John Schneider. What has happened that made the city declare a vacant hotel unsuitable for use?"

The owner (Xiao Jin Yuan) decided to close the Landmark Hotel in April 2016, and has had it on the market for sale since then, noted Schneider, who is Urbana's community development manager.

"During a recent systematic inspection of the build

ing, conditions were noted regarding fire exiting and elevator licensing that must be rectified before any entry is allowed into the building," he said. "The city is working closely with the owner to ensure that the conditions are properly addressed in a timely manner. Once that is accomplished, the Not Approved for Occupancy signs will be removed."

Last December Yuan put the 95-year-old hotel building up for auction but the highest bid of $3.95 million didn't meet what he called his "reserve price."

"If the price is right, we will sell it. If it's not right, we're not going to sell it," said Yuan, who bought the property in 2010 for $600,000.

Curtis Road construction

"What's going on at the corner of Curtis Road and First Street in Champaign? There's been some construction over the last few weeks on the north side of the road."

That's part of the Ameren Illinois natural gas pipeline upgrade that we mentioned in the Mailbag two weeks ago (in a question about work along the Canadian National Railroad tracks).Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch said the utility is upgrading two natural gas pipelines in Champaign and Savoy.

"Crews are replacing vintage natural gas transmission pipeline with 12-inch steel for 3.2 miles and six-inch steel for a half mile. Streets along the route include: crossing Windsor Road east of Neil Street, for one mile along Curtis Road east from the CN tracks past First Street, along South First Street from Curtis to Church and east for a quarter-mile on Church from South First Street.

In the second project, Ameren crews will upgrade 19,000 feet of natural gas distribution pipelines and service connections on Kirby Avenue and streets south of Kirby Avenue between Mattis and Prospect avenues to enhance natural gas service for about 260 customers, he said. The existing pipeline was placed into service in the late 1950s to early 1960s. The new pipeline will be 2-inch polyethylene material, which is durable and less prone to leakage.

Outdoor track open to public

"Is there any outdoor track in the Champaign-Urbana area that is open to the public? We used to run at Centennial but that track is closed and Urbana High School track has very limited hours."

The UHS track will be open from 7 to 9:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday during most of July.

There also are nearby tracks open for public use at Unity High School in Tolono and at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in St. Joseph. Both operate with reasonable restrictions, such as no spikes or cleats, no pets and no bikes or skateboards.

Lincoln Avenue safety

"It seems to us that driving on Lincoln Avenue at night it is very hard to see pedestrians. Any thoughts about improving the lighting? Also, bicycle riders seem to think they have the right-of-way riding their bikes through the pedestrian walkways. We always thought that walking your bike through the walkway is OK, but if you are riding your bike you need to follow the rules of the roads for vehicles — right or wrong?"

As for the first question, Urbana Public Works Director Bill Gray said the city plans to do a "streetlight photometric analysis on Lincoln Avenue from Nevada to Pennsylvania as part of future roadway safety improvements planned in FY 2020."

Your second question could be directed at me as I often ride my bike across the crosswalks on Lincoln Avenue, although not when cars are nearby.

Here's Gray's response to your question:

"If a bicyclist is using a crosswalk they should act as pedestrian and walk their bicycle. If the bicyclist is in the street they should act as vehicle and obey the rules of the road," he said. "As for a bicyclist using a shared use path, the bicyclist should yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and give an audible signal before overtaking and passing the pedestrian."

"Do Not Follow" signs

"What's legal status of the 'Work Truck/Do Not Follow' signs that are popping up on more and more heavy trucks around town? If the trucks are on city streets, how can one n

ot follow them? Those signs look like attempts to avoid liability for improperly covered loads that shed their contents onto and damage the cars that are behind them."

"The signs that you mention are a requirement on some of our IDOT contracts that we place in the contract documents (special provisions)," said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "These signs are required on construction vehicles delivering materials (aggregate, asphalt, etc.) to our job sites to keep the traveling public from following vehicles into places that they should not be."

More on that unauthorized spigot

"Do you know how to get a hold of Kensil Garnett, Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation? I thought that spigot over the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River (see last week’s Mailbag) was adorable!"

I do know how to reach Garnett and I put your question to him. Here’s his reply:

"The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) has rules prohibiting adding material to existing signs. Section 1A.08(8) states that ‘Any unauthorized traffic control device or other sign or message placed on the highway right-of-way by a private organization or individual constitutes a public nuisance and should be removed. All unofficial or non-essential traffic control devices, signs, or

messages should be removed.’"

Summer meal program

"Are the children of Unit 4 employees eligible for free meals (assuming the children attend school in Unit 4)?"

It is for all children, said Emily Schmit, the director of communications and community relations for the school district.

"Champaign Unit 4 School District sponsors the Summer Meal Program for all children ages 18 and under living in Champaign. This would include the children of Unit 4 employees meeting those requirements," she said. "Children do not need to attend Unit 4 schools."

Large-print menus

"Are there any restaurants, cafes, etc. that have large-print menus available upon request? It would make dining out easier for customers that have recently had eye surgery and feel restricted."

Readers, any recommendations?


"Listening to WDWS, (state Sen.) Chapin Rose used a term which I have never heard before in discussing the Peoples Gas case. He said his legislation was 'bill-jacked.' I chuckled. Did he come up with that or is that a phrase you heard often during your time covering Springfield?"

That is a relatively common phrase in Springfield about a practice that has gone on for years. Billjacking can occur one of two ways:

— when a piece of legislation that passed one house goes over to the other and its sponsorship is grabbed by someone who isn't a supporter. That way the legislation either goes nowhere or is amended away from its original intent.

— or, when a piece of legislation is so popular and so certain of passage that the leadership takes it away from one legislator and assigns it to one who is perceived as needing some favorable publicity.

In a story published in the Houston Press, writer Todd Spivak quoted a former colleague of Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate, a fellow Democrat from the south side of Chicago, who mentioned billjacking ...

"(Former Senate Present Emil) Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.

"'I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen,' State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. 'Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.

"'I don't consider it bill jacking,' Hendon told me. 'But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book.'

"During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama's stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law — including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced."

Moth infestation

"What's with all the moths this year? I can never remember seeing so many in Champaign-Urbana. There are so many that they are spooking my daughters."

Kelly Estes, a state survey coordinator with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said there "has definitely been an abundance of moths recently" although she said she's not certain that their numbers are greater than normal.

"But we are seeing them more in urban areas this summer," she said.

They are armyworm moths that migrate from the south each spring and are considered an agricultural pest, causing damage to corn and wheat crops. But they can also attack other plants.

There's a possibility, she said, "that we may see some larvae feeding in gardens and lawns."

In a paper written last year, Phil Nixon, a retired University of Illinois extension entomologist, said that armyworm caterpillar damage is most common "in housing areas and golf courses next to farming operations."

They can be controlled with a number of insecticides.

Ag research

"In Savoy, there are some farm fields that I think are used for U of I ag research. In particular, in fields just north of Airport Road (1100N) and east of First Street (1200E) there are large circular structures in several different locations. Do you know what these are for?"

That's the SoyFACE research facility where scientists study crop responses to atmospheric change and environmental stress, said Lisa Ainsworth, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois.

The circular structures are made up of poles that have equipment that controls the release of carbon dioxide and ozone.

"With a flick of a switch, large areas of crop can be exposed to the atmospheric composition expected in 2050," says a page on the SoyFACE web site. "FACE (which stands for Free-Air gas Concentration Enrichment) avoids any changes to the micro-environment imposed by chambers, thereby providing the most reliable estimates of plant responses to elevated carbon dioxide and ozone. The large scale of FACE allows assessment of absolute changes in yield, water and nutrient use, as well as cultivar and fertilizer trials."For more information on the experiments see this site:

Last Champaign County hanging

"I have a question that might make for an interesting story. Who was the last hanging sheriff of Champaign County? I had been told many times over the years that it was my great great grandfather, George W. Davis."

You are correct that George W. Davis was sheriff for the last hanging in Champaign County history, on Dec. 23, 1927, when Herschell Andrews was put to death for the murder of Thomas Tate a year earlier.

He also was sheriff for the 1921 execution of Johnny Christmas, a horribly mishandled incident in which the accused died of strangulation after what witnesses said lasted 22 minutes. Both Andrews and Christmas were black. The only other person to die by means of Champaign County's old gallows was Dick Collier, a white man who was put to death in 1898 for the murder of a fellow chicken thief.

In 1938 the Legislature decided that counties (except Cook County) no longer would be allowed to carry out capital punishment on their own.

That was fine with county jailer John McKinney, who told The News-Gazette that he didn't want to see anymore executions adjacent the jail in downtown Urbana.

"McKinney is a believer in the old adage that there is some good in the worst of us," the newspaper reported.

You can read more about the county's history of capital punishment in the book "Hot Type," which I authored and was published in 2002.

Windsor Road

"What was ever the outcome of the Windsor Road fiasco? Half of it stayed closed for well over a year, but have never heard what the outcome to the cause of the cracks were ..."

I asked Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin and she said there's nothing new to report.

I'll remind readers that we're waiting to hear from the Illinois attorney general's office on our request to see a study of the report on Windsor Road.

We filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city but it was denied. Here's the background from a previous Mailbag ...

CPD vehicles

"Lately I seem to be seeing many Champaign policemen driving all-black SUVs, but clearly marked CPD. Is this a new look for our men in blue?"

The police department has only one marked black and white squad car, introduced last November to mark the 50-year anniversary of Officer Robert Tatman's unsolved "line-of-duty" death, said Chief Anthony Cobb.

"This vehicle is a replica of the 1967 squad car markings that our department was using at the time of Officer Tatman's death, and will be a part of CPD's fleet through November 25, 2018," he said.

Cobb explained that an "unmarked" squad car is "a vehicle that has the emergency lights and siren but no external police markings."

But he noted that the department's uniform supervisor squad cars are unmarked and come in a variety of colors, including dark grey and white (currently, but we've had blue and black in the past).

"They all have the 'MP' police license plate and most (if not all) have the word 'supervisor' on the rear bumper, along with a squad number," he said. "We also have several squad cars driven by detectives and command staff that are completely unmarked with no police license plates or marking on the vehicles, though they do have lights and sirens and some of these vehicles are black."

Vacant home

"I live in the historic district of Champaign just west of downtown. How many complaints has the City received about the abandoned home at 309 West Washington street? And o

ver what time period? We as a neighborhood really need help getting some movement on this home because it needs a lot of TLC."

The former owner of 309 W. Washington is William Baker of Champaign, and the Champaign neighborhood services department has 20 separate code compliance cases in its database about the property, according to David Oliver of the neighborhood services department."The majority of these cases were for nuisance conditions. The city has abated the property several times resulting in liens filed for the services rendered," Oliver explained. "There are three active cases at this time including a housing case in litigation."

The mortgage company recently completed a foreclosure and the property was sold at a sheriff sale, he said.

Oliver said that an order approving the sale was filed May 7.

"Code Compliance has been in contact with the new owner and they are aware of the housing deficiencies. We are currently waiting for the sheriff's deed to be filed and the owner's future plan for the property," he said.

A report on file at the circuit clerk's office, dated Sept. 19, 2017, said that the structure "is sound and not a candidate for demolition."

Arboretum upkeep

"Last weekend, my wife and I decided to stroll through the U of I Arboretum, and we were surprised by the poor condition of the flower beds (lots of weeds) and lack of plants in the shade areas. As a retired UI employee, I was going to try to get the question answered myself, but I couldn't figure out who to call. So, I'm curious, has there been a change in its management, a funding shortfall, or bad timing on our part? It seems that wedding season is upon us and I know that has been a popular photo spot."

The flower beds, which are known as the Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden, are undergoing a redesign with the goal of making it more of a four-season garden that would include perennials as well as annuals.

Work is under way to rebuild walls within the garden, said Kevin McSweene

y, the director of the UI Arboretum.

"It's going to be about a two-year project," he said. "We started in the southeast corner where we're doing the first renovation portion of the garden. So each of the four corners will be transformed into different designs, different themes from what they were in the past.

"We've laid out a completely new concrete pathway system there. The idea is to create a space that would be accessible and safe for people in wheelchairs and with the range of cognitive loss diseases that affect a lot of people, particularly older people. But like a lot of the things we do it's not an instant project."

Overall, he said, the Hartley Garden will be under reconstruction "for several years."

Meanwhile the garden will be cleaned up, he said. It's been delayed because of the unusual weather this spring.

"We just got caught with challenging conditions that really put us back from the usual routine of maintenance, from the things that we would have done in the spring if we had a spring," McSweeney said. "Some of the annual planting is already in. We'll get caught up, I imagine, in the next couple of weeks."

Long term, he said, perennials will be planted "to add a little more seasonal variety to that garden. It will still have the summer pop of color but not as extensively as people have been accustomed to in the past."

Blocked sidewalks

"I frequently encounter cars that are blocking the sidewalk around my neighborhood in Champaign. Often they are sitting on the driveway straddling the sidewalk, and sometimes they're blocking the handicap ramps. Does the city ever enforce the rules and ticket drivers who block the sidewalk? What should I do when I encounter these situations, since it's usually outside of normal working hours? It's frustrating to me as an able-bodied person, so I can only imagine how it feels for people in wheelchairs or pushing strollers."

Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins said that police should be called if a car is blocking a handicapped ramp.

A car parked over a sidewalk isn't quite as clear a call, he said, and depends on the nature of the area, and the frequency and duration of the offense.

"It is always a judgment call, but it is a violation of our parking ordinances to block a sidewalk. Ordinarily a parking ticket is appropriate," he said.

Aldermen packing heat

"Illinois allows aldermen to carry a gun and make arrests as 'conservators of the peace' after passing a test according to a Chicago Tribune story. Is that true around here or a special thing in Chicago?"

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said she does not know of any auxiliary police officers (as they are referred to in state law: 65 ILCS 5/3.1-30-20) (from Ch. 24, par. 3.1-30-20) around here.

And she notes that Tribune columnist Eric Zorn followed up the Tribune story with a column noting that the "tradition of handing out these sorts of badges dates to the 1800s when aldermen and trustees were automatically deputized as 'conservators of the peace,' with the arrest and detention powers of sworn members of the constabulary.

"State law still allows for them to be so deputized, but only after 'the successful completion of a training course administered by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board.'"That course is 560 hours (14 weeks), and Training Standards Board staff counsel John Keigher told me that elected officials 'find that it's not worth that kind of time investment' to earn the incremental boost in authority."

Zorn suggested that the Chicago alderman who flashed his "aldermanic badge" that looks like a police shield should be stripped of it and that "while they're at it, they should strip the badges from every other non-police officer who now carries one."

Here's Zorn's column:

Unusual statue

"Do you have any information about the chicken statue on the west side of I-57 (southbound) near the Market Street exit?"

The property at 75 E. Hensley Road is owned by Dennis Toeppen, the controversial operator of the Suburban Express bus company. (Here's some background ...

When I called the company to ask about the chicken I was told by a company representative that "it's just a Fiberglas chicken."

"Why would a bus company have a Fiberglas chicken outside?" I asked.

"Why not?" said a man who identified himself as "Laszlo" and then hung up.


Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).