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There's a broad variety of questions in this week's mailbag, much like the variety of crops that will be grown this year at The Atkins Group's Clearview Farm.

In this week's 'bag: the proposed Union Gardens housing development in north Urbana is dead, Daylight Saving Time is coming, an upcoming paper shredding and prescription drug collection event, hundreds of geese kept Kaufman Lake from icing over last month, and easy access to this year's sunflower crop in Champaign.

Also, the oldest farms in Champaign County, the toughest academic course at the University of Illinois, plans for the old Robeson property on Prospect Avenue, whether you'll ever get to pick your vaccine and who represents criminal defendants in Champaign County.

Ice thickness of Kaufman Lake

"I saw Kaufman Lake ice rescue and was wondering this year how many inches of ice there was and what is the average yearly measurements. Minnesota has frozen lakes with ice houses and vehicles on them. Have we ever had enough ice?"

Bret Johnson, assistant director of operations for the Champaign Park District, said he couldn't speak to how thick parts of the lake got this year.

But I can tell you that there was a large section in the center of the lake that never froze over despite the bitter cold last month. That's mostly because the water levels were low this winter because of lack of fall precipitation, he said, plus the presence of hundreds of geese that kept the water agitated.

Decades ago Kaufman Lake would regularly freeze over with ice as thick as 8 inches, he said.

Sunflower access

"Will the sunflower field featured in (Thursday's) paper allow us to park nearby and walk through?"

Yes, said Jim Goss, the director of farm management for The Atkins Group.

"Yes there will be plenty of on street parking and a maze to walk through in the sunflower field.  We want the community to enjoy the sunflowers and many other crops as they grow, bloom and are harvested," said Goss.

Just remember that this year's field of sunflowers will be in northwest Champaign at what is called Clearview Farm off of North Mattis Avenue. There will be 140 acres of other crops grown there this year, including buckwheat, wheat, flax, red clover, alfalfa, canola, oats, popcorn, quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum, gourds, triticale and white corn.

Last year's sunflower crop was grown at the other end of C-U at the Stone Creek subdivision in southeast Urbana.

Vaccinations for inmates

"While on the Vermilion County Health Department website, trying to find out when a COVID vaccine will be available for me here in Vermilion County, I saw that inmates at jails and prisons have a higher priority for vaccination than I do. I don't understand why. I can understand the corrections officers having a high priority to maintain their health in order to allow them to be able to do the job of keeping control of the miscreants behind the fence but why do the incarcerated people have a high priority? It almost seems like incarcerated people get a reward for breaking the law and preying upon their fellow man. I see no reason to vaccinate them at any higher priority than others in their age and/or health group and seeing how they are in a contained setting with no right to outside contact with others, they could probably be vaccinated last without damaging public health."

Remember that it's important to prevent mass outbreaks of severe cases of COVID-19 that could tax hospital intensive care units.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says that states may choose to vaccinate individuals living in facilities like jails and prisons at the same time as frontline staff because of the increased risk of transmission in such close quarters, according to the Better Government Association of Illinois.

The BGA also found that the federal Bureau of Prisons also is providing vaccines to inmates and that at least 13 other states have prioritized vaccinations to inmates.

Daylight Saving returns

"When does Daylight Saving time return and is there any chance that it becomes year-round in Illinois?"

You'll turn your clocks forward an hour next weekend. We return to Daylight Saving Time at 2 a.m. March 14.

On that day we'll almost have 12 hours of both light and darkness. The sun will rise at 7:07 a.m. and set at 6:49 p.m.

As for legislative changes there are at least six bills in the Illinois House this spring that either provide for year-round Daylight Saving Time in Illinois or say that Illinois "is exempt from the provisions of the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 that establish daylight saving time."

Centennial farms in Champaign County

"Can you tell me where the Eichorst Farm that was in last week's News-Gazette falls in a list of oldest farms in the county? Seems to me there were statewide lists at some point regarding centennial farms. I'm curious as to the oldest farm in Champaign County and whether designation provides relief in any way."

There are many Champaign County farms older than the Eichorst farm, according to a list of sesquicentennial and centennial farms maintained by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Here's a link to the list ...

https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr/Assistance/IllinoisFarmPrograms/CentennialSesquicentennial/Pages/default.aspx

The oldest family farm in the county — defined as one owned by the same family of lineal or collateral descendants — appears to be the Stamey farm in Hensley Township (north of Champaign) that was purchased in 1833, the year Champaign County was created.

There are 14 sesquicentennial farms in Champaign County, according to the list, and 365 centennial farms. Sesquicentennial farm families include: Babb (Somer Township), Delaney (Newcomb), Dickerson (Hensley), Hiser (Ogden), Mills (Ogden), Peters (St. Joseph), Rudicil (St. Joseph), Thompson (St. Joseph), Waters (Stanton), Welles (Compromise), Whalen (Colfax), Wiswell (Sidney) and Ziegler (Somer).

Take your best shot

"With the introduction of a third COVID vaccine by Johnson & Johnson, will we get to a point where we can choose which vaccine we get? Is there a way to know before an appointment which vaccine one will receive? Always good to know your choices."

Maybe later you'll be able to choose your vaccine but not for a while, said Awais Vaid, deputy administrator at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

"Even with the approval of the third vaccine, the supply of vaccine for the next few weeks will be limited. At the local level we do not know which vaccine and how much we will receive every week. Even with delivery confirmations a few days before the clinic appointment, we have changed the vaccine type due to delay in transportation from the feds," said Vaid. "Once the supply chain becomes more consistent, individuals may be able to ask the site and confirm what vaccines are being offered that week and then decide if they want to take the appointment or wait.

"With the current level of vaccine allocation, we do not expect individual sites to be able to offer options when requesting an appointment."

Most academically challenging UI course

"I’ve always wondered, what is the most academically challenging course the University of Illinois offers?"

There's no objective way to determine the most challenging course at the UI, said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler. But I think I would have great difficulty with Physics 583, described as "Quantization and Feynman path integral; gauge theories and renormalization; renormalization group with applications to particle physics and critical phenomena; approximation methods and recent developments."

"The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a world-class institution, and we offer rigorous coursework in every discipline across our programs of study," said Kaler. "There is no objective way to compare and contrast how academically challenging courses are in different disciplines, and any individual might find a course challenging while another student finds that same course less of a challenge.

"But, based on my personal experience, I think every person who has graduated with Illinois degree will tell you it was a hard-earned privilege."

Historic house at Prospect & White

"The house on Prospect Avenue that you wrote about previously has been torn down. What comes next?"

Developer Mark Anderson, who purchased the old F.K. Robeson Jr. house at 210 S. Prospect Ave., said he believes there will be an exodus of Baby Boomers from home ownership in the coming years and he wants to offer something different.

"My target market is down-sizers who want to stay in Champaign but sell their large house and reduce their space and costs," said Anderson. "The ideal is townhomes, flats or two-story with grade level parking. My inspiration is Cheshire Estates which can sell up to $300/SF upgraded. I don't think there is much new at that price point which is close-in. There is also a market for helicopter parents wanting to 'hover' over their kids at school and be active on the Big-Ten sports program."

It sounds a bit like the plan former University of Illinois Urbana campus Chancellor Richard Herman had about 15 years ago to develop part of the Orchard Downs residential complex in Urbana for senior housing for people who wanted to remain involved in university life, including classes, performances at the Krannert Center and sporting events.

Paper shredding event

"Every spring there is usually a paper shredding collection day and I believe in conjunction with a bank. Do you know of any dates for a collection day this spring?"

"We are pleased to share with your readers that Champaign County Crime Stoppers will hold its annual shred event and prescription drug collection on Saturday, April 24," said Jeff Hamilton, board member of Champaign County Crime Stoppers. "This annual fundraising event will be held from 9-11 am in University of Illinois Lot E14 at the corner of First and Kirby. We are proud to provide these important services to our community as a way of helping residents protect themselves from identity theft and to safely and properly dispose of unneeded prescription drugs."

Hamilton said that the Crime Stoppers group relies "upon fundraisers like this to collect the money needed to pay for rewards and operating expenses. We are requesting a $10 donation to shred up to two bankers boxes of documents. The prescription drug collection is provided free of charge.

"To promote public safety amidst the pandemic we will utilize COVID-19 safety protocols including the use of face masks and a contactless collection process."

Union Gardens project

"Is there any recent news about the Union Gardens housing development? Presumably it's been delayed by the pandemic, but as I recall the zoning approvals for the project will expire soon. Does the developer intend to move ahead with this in the near future?"

"The project is dead," said Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin. "The developer has indicated they are no longer pursuing this project."

Union Gardens was to have been a 406-unit housing development on 40 acres north of Bradley Avenue and east of North Oak Street in Urbana. It was proposed in 2018 by Trinitas Ventures, based in Lafayette, Ind.

No one from Trinitas responded to requests for comment.

Defendants attorneys

"(State Sen.) Chapin Rose's hyperbolic Mailbag (last week) response about the crime bill raised a couple questions: what percentage of criminal defendants in Champaign County Circuit Court are represented pro se or by public defenders, and how many take plea bargains? I ask because Rose raised the specter of crafty defense lawyers 'exploiting' the law to 'get their clients off the hook.' It's my hunch that very few criminal defendants in this county are spending beaucoup bucks on crack legal defense teams, and that most defendants either represent themselves or are represented by under-resourced and overworked public defenders, with the most frequent outcome some sort of plea deal. This would render Chapin's scary hypothetical a moot point. But perhaps he knows something I don't, and the local private defense bar is out there constantly racking up wins for the great majority of criminal defendants who end up in our local courthouse."

In short you are correct. Most criminal cases — felonies and misdemeanors — are handled by the public defenders. It's the same with most traffic cases. But DUIs are a different story.

Thanks to Champaign County Circuit Court Clerk Susan McGrath for this breakdown of cases since 2016:

Felony cases

private attorneys    1,997     23.8 percent

pro se                         14      0.2 percent

public defender       6,364     76.0 percent

Misdemeanor cases

private attorneys      980       19.5 percent

pro se                         3         0.1 percent

public defender     4,030        80.4 percent

traffic cases

private attorneys  8,391          41.6 percent

pro se                    198           1.0 percent

public defender   11,589          57.4 percent

driving under the influence cases

private attorneys   1,104          63.7 percent

pro se                         2            0.1 percent

public defender         626          36.1 percent

Ballot application

"I find the attached item more amusing than disturbing, but there might be some people who would not feel the same way. It references an upcoming special election and encourages me to request a mail-in ballot if I wish to. However, note the deadline dates in the lower corner of the letter:

Deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot: February 18

Deadline for submitting a mail-in ballot: February 23

Date of the actual special primary: February 23

Date that this notice was delivered to my mailbox: February 24

"Now, would you happen to have any friends or connections who can explain why I received this notice about a special election after it was too late to do anything about it?"

There was no special election. The notice you received in the mail from the county clerk's office was a notification of a polling place change for the April 6 consolidated election, said County Clerk Aaron Ammons. It also included reminder dates about voting in the consolidated primary election, which was held on Feb. 23.

"Anytime we have to change a voter's polling location we must notify the voter of the change, and if there’s time to mail it, a letter like the one this voter received is required," Ammons said. "Due to COVID-19 and the convenience of voting by mail, I decided to put a vote by mail application on the back of the letter.

"The other reason I put the application on the back of the letter is because the current law (unfortunately) requires a voter to request a vote by mail application for every election in which they wish to vote by mail. This is ridiculous in my opinion and we are working with the Legislature to change this draconian approach to vote by mail.

"Currently, military personnel and voters who are part of our incapacitated program are all on a permanent list and they do not have to request a vote by mail ballot for every election. The states at the forefront of Vote by Mail all use permanent lists and we are trying to follow best practices."

Ammons said that "any registered voter in Champaign County who fills out the VBM application and returns it to my office will be sent a ballot for the April 6th consolidated election."

Left-turn arrows

"Why does the timing of left arrows vary in C-U? Sometimes one or two cars get through before the arrow turns yellow. Other times, much more. Why isn’t there a standard a litter time?"

It varies for a number of reasons, said Kris Koester, spokesman for the Champaign Public Works Department.

"For all traffic signals with arrows a maximum amount of green time is programmed, based on various factors including the time of day, the amount of traffic typically taking that turn, and the amount of traffic going in other directions. Programmed maximum times vary greatly across town, ranging from about 12 seconds up to 30 seconds in some locations. The larger left turn times are typically feasible because the opposing through traffic is very light (think of northbound Neil Street at Town Center)," said Koester.

"In some locations (mostly in Downtown Champaign and on the University of Illinois campus) some arrows are pre-timed, which means the arrow will come on every time (even a vehicle is not present) and stay on for the pre-determined amount of time. A couple examples of this situation are on University Avenue by the City Building and on campus at Wright and Green or Sixth and Green streets

"Most arrows around town are actuated, which means detection (either in the pavement or through a camera on the mast arm or a streetlight pole) helps determine the arrow time and it can vary each time it comes on. In these situations:

"The detection tells the signal to turn the arrow on when the opportunity comes around to it. For most signals in the community this opportunity comes around about once every minute and a half to two minutes.

"The detection also tells the signal when there aren't any vehicles remaining and it can end the programmed green time early.

"The maximum time is still programmed for an actuated signal and the detection cannot extend the time past that amount of time.

"There is only so much time available and it has to be divided among the various traffic movements. While the timings attempt to cover the busiest times, it isn't always possible to cover the busiest time for each and every movement at an intersection. A great example of this is the intersection of Marketview and Prospect, where every direction and several turns are all busy at the same time (especially on the weekends)."

Tracking earthquakes

"Yesterday (2/4/21) I took a screen break to lay down for a few minutes around 5:45 p.m. I began to feel like someone was shaking my bed. I was fully awake so I know it wasn't a dream. This went on for about 10-12 seconds but totally felt like some kind of earthquake. Is there a way to check to see if there is local seismic activity?"

No, there wasn't any significant seismic activity anywhere near central Illinois yesterday.

And yes, you can check recent earthquakes of 2.5 magnitude or greater at this web site maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey ...

https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/?extent=8.84165,-138.16406&extent=59.44508,-51.76758

Another web site — Earthquake Track — said there was a 1.8 magnitude quake Thursday in New Madrid, Mo., but that it would not have been felt anywhere in Illinois.

Columnist

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

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