1 N. Virginia St. Suite A, Crystal Lake, IL 60014
Phone: 815.459.5152  Fax: 815.459.0290

Putting Land First

McHenry County proposal encourages earth friendly growth

By Charles Keeshan - ckeeshan@dailyherald.com
Posted Monday, July 09, 2007

It is the unfortunate reality of the past decade's explosive growth in McHenry County.

Home buyers, most from Chicago or closer-in suburbs, flock northwest in search of relatively cheaper land and more open space, quieter neighborhoods, less congestion and an atmosphere as much rural as suburban.

But in doing so, they create exactly the kind of subdivisions and shopping centers they hoped to leave behind and lose some the very things that drew them to McHenry County in the first place.

Now McHenry County leaders are working on a plan to deal with the ongoing and inevitable realities of growth while at the same time preserving the qualities that make the area so attractive.

The plan is called the Land First Initiative, an effort to re-write county subdivision laws to encourage, if not outright mandate, conservation-friendly development.

Supporters of the proposal say that means integrating subdivisions into a property's natural landscape, instead on top of it.

"The idea is to look at the land first, try to maintain or restore the natural areas, and then see what's left to build on," said Barbara Wheeler, chairman of the McHenry County Board's Planning and Development Committee and one of the plan's chief proponents. "It is going to change the way developers and builders think about subdivisions in McHenry County.

The county board last month endorsed the plan, and could see a complete revision of their 16-year-old subdivision code within a few months.

"This, I think, is one of the most important things this board has done in years," board member Jim Kennedy said.

What exactly will qualify as conservation-friendly development under the code, and how it fits in the subdivision code, remains to be seen. But a draft document produced last month, entitled Conservation Design Standards and Procedures for McHenry County, lends some clues on the county's direction.

The eight-page document emphasizes the clustering of homes closer together on smaller lots, replaces sewers and septic tanks with innovative wastewater disposal systems such as spray irrigation, eliminates curbs and gutters in favor of swales and calls for narrower streets with gravel shoulders.

The end result, supporters say, will be more and larger areas of open space, better preservation of groundwater supplies and subdivisions that are easier to maintain and more neighbor-friendly.

"You end up with smaller individual lots, but you're preserving the natural open spaces for the entire neighborhood," said Dennis Dreher, a member of the county's 2030 Plan Commission and a key member of the Land First Initiative's steering committee.

Suburban examples of subdivisions that follow the conservation-friendly model include the Sanctuary of Bull Valley; Prairie Crossing in Grayslake; and Mill Creek in Geneva.

Developers largely back the proposal because it allows them more design flexibility than standard subdivision codes, said Joseph Gottemoller, a Crystal Lake attorney who frequently represents development interests before county panels.

And, he said, it doesn't hurt that conservation design will not cost builders the number of homes they are allowed to build on site.

"Most developers will say this is an easier mechanism to design under than what we currently have,' Gottemoller said. With smaller roads, no curbs and fewer acres to grade, builders can also reap a cost savings from a conservation design, Dreher said. The plan, if incorporated into the county's subdivision code, would hold jurisdiction over properties outside municipal borders. But Wheeler and others hope to encourage village boards and city councils in the county to follow suit.

Despite the expected benefits, the plan's backers say there are some issues they need to resolve before reshaping the subdivision code. Near the top of that list are questions about who will maintain the extra land left as open space and who will pay for it. Options include turning those properties over to the McHenry County Conservation District or other not-for-profit agency, establishing endowments for their care or creating homeowners associations in each neighborhood.

"How we manage those areas is an issue we need to resolve," Dreher said. "Those could turn into large weed beds if not managed properly." The Land First Initiative committee must also decide whether to recommend that the county make the conservation-friendly design an option for builders or a requirement.

"We really have to decide how far we want to go, "Wheeler said. "How can we do what we need to do to protect open space and protect groundwater, but not be so restrictive that no one wants to build in McHenry County? That's what we have to decide."

Located in Crystal Lake, Illinois, the lawyers at Madsen, Sugden & Gottemoller, Attorneys at Law, represent clients in McHenry County, including the communities of: Crystal Lake, McHenry, Waukegan, Woodstock, Algonquin, Lake in the Hills, Cary, Elgin, Dundee, Barrington, Harvard, Marengo, and Johnsburg.

Back to top