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Great Lakes Article:

Saving 'nature's sponges'
Development: Ordinances boost value of homes, land
By Catherine Ann Velasco
Surburban Chicago Newspapers

GREEN GARDEN TOWNSHIP - Instead of filling in wetlands or bulldozing over open space, developer Jim Paul thrives on incorporating Mother Nature into his subdivisions.

Out of 151 acres in his Canterbury Lakes development, there are 55 acres devoted to open space areas, including habitats with trails, a park, well-stocked lakes and sitting areas to enjoy nature.

He often sees deer and pheasant at his Canterbury Lakes development at the southwest corner of Manhattan-Monee Road and Harlem Avenue in Green Garden Township.

"In a lot of cases, we left the open spaces as is and in certain other areas we've incorporated restoration and put additional trees in the developments," Paul said.

However, Paul seems to be unique among the majority of developers statewide.

Developers' petitions

Since protections for wetlands were stripped away in 2001 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dealing with more petitions than ever from people who want to develop on wetlands, said Paul Leffler, regulatory specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The court ruled that isolated wetlands - those not connected to an adjacent river or lake - are no longer protected under the federal Clean Water Act.

That means there are about 150,118 acres of isolated wetlands in Illinois that were left vulnerable to development, said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter.

"Sprawl is chipping away at what stream and wetland habitat remain and it's truly a shame," Darin said.

"When you take away nature's ability to absorb rainwater, that water will end up in your basement," Darin said. "Wetlands are nature's sponges because they soak up flood water. They are nature's kidneys because they filter out pollution and they are homes for countless species of wildlife."

Nature's sponges

A wetland is an area that is saturated with ground water or surface water for a long enough time to support hydric soil, wetland vegetation and wildlife, Leffler said. While a flood plain is outside the boundary of a wetland and usually has higher elevation. Flood plains won't support all the criteria needed in a wetland.

Concerned about the ruling, the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter requested data through the Freedom of Information Act to find out what was happening to the unprotected wetlands in Illinois.

The Sierra Club found 261 cases in Northeastern Illinois, including 42 wetlands in Will County where the Army Corps had to allow wetlands to be destroyed by developers, landowners and others, Darin said.

In Crest Hill, Sierra Club volunteers found that an owner was given permission to destroy .228 acres, containing endangered species, such as Hine's Emerald dragonfly and spotted turtle.

"Because the Army Corps lost jurisdiction of isolated wetlands, it would be fair to say there was a large loss of wetlands all over the country," Leffler said.

"We are trying to balance a lot of needs. We try to balance development with environmental quality in the area," Leffler said. "We want people to use their land for economical purposes. We also try to limit their impact to wetland areas. We try to view their projects and lessen impact."

Protection bill

Currently, the Sierra Club is supporting Illinois Senate Bill 422 that will restore protections to wetlands that the federal government is no longer protecting, Darin said. The bill, which will be up for a vote this fall, would require a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before anyone could destroy a wetland in Illinois, Darin said.

If the applicant can show there were no reasonable alternatives to destroying the wetland, and that it would not result in the loss of flood control, wildlife habitat, or water purification functions, the permit would be greated, Darin said.

"The relators and home builders are lobbying furiously against it. I know it will be hotly contested in the Senate," Darin said. "This bill is very important to protect homeowners from flooding, to protect our drinking water from pollution and to protect our remaining wildlife."

Before the suburban sprawl really hit Will County, the Forest Preserve District of Will County identified more than 9,000 acres that were suitable for preservation. Many of the acres were along waterways from rivers, creeks to streams, said Bruce Hodgdon, spokesman for the district.

In 1999 voters approved a $70 million bond referendum that allows the forest preserve to spend $51 million to buy open space, including wetlands.

"Wetlands are nature's purifiers. They can take water that has certain kinds of pollutions and oxygenate it and purify it. Wetlands are crucial for the ecological health of Will County as the county continues to become more and more developed," Hodgdon said.

Acres Acres away

The forest preserve district has bought 3,500 acres to date, and plans to buy about 500 to 700 more acres with the funds, Hodgdon said. The district has been able to restore wetland prairies, such as Theodore Marsh in Joliet, which was destroyed when a construction company used it as a dumping ground for its materials.

The referendum allowed the forest preserve to get an early head start in the race for open space before developers quickly build up in Will County, which is expected to become the second most populous county in the state by 2030. The county is expected to double its population to 1.2 million people, according to research conducted by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission.

Meanwhile, Will County has put guidelines in place to encourage developers to incorporate wetlands and open space into their developments, said Sheldon Latz, Will County engineer and chief subdivision engineer.

Similar to Paul's development in Green Garden Township, the county's ordinance known as the conservation design method encourages developers to cluster houses closer together in order to have more open space, Latz said.

Paul said he has seen more developers nationwide using this approach, which not only helps nature but can help one's pocketbook.

Paul, owner of Alps Development Inc. in Green Garden Township, said the open space concept has added 11 percent to 15 percent to the value of the homes in Canterbury Lakes. The homes currently sell for $350,000 and up.

"The resale is higher because it is creative," he said. "Instead of going to a park, you have a park in your back yard."

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