Accompanied by his attorney, a city resident vowed to fight the City of Gillespie’s solar energy field project “as far as I can” during the city council’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. The council also agreed to complete an application to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for a $318,000 Community Development and Assistance Program grant that basically will reimburse the city for funds formerly held in a Revolving Loan Fund that the state required the city to close out.
George Link, accompanied by his attorney Jared Giuffre, who also is Link’s son-in-law, told the council that construction of a solar energy field on property adjacent to his home threatens to reduce his property value and interfere with his enjoyment of his home. The council accepted a low bid of approximately $387,000 from Illinois Solar in May to install a field of solar panels to provide power for the municipal water treatment plant, contingent upon the city finding a suitable location for the field. Two months later, the council voted to spend $24,000 to acquire six lots on the south side of the water plant from Community Unit School District 7 as a site for the solar field, and construction on the project recently began. The lots are located directly across the street from Link’s home in the 400 block of Pearl Street.
Link said he has invested a quarter of a million dollars in building his home and making improvements to his property. The solar field now under construction, he complained, is only 50 feet from his property line and less than 100 feet from his side door. He said he’s had no concerns about being within a block of water plant but suggested the solar field will have a negative impact on his property’s value.
“You’ve blighted that whole area,” he said. “Twenty years ago, I had a chance to buy that property. I moved over a block because I didn’t want to be next to the water plant.”
According to Link, the area is zoned for single-family residences. “To me, this (solar field) is an industrial use that doesn’t need to be in a residential area.” He said he spoke to local developer Kevin Sievers who owns the property behind the solar field on which he had planned to build new homes. “He’s not happy about this either,” Link said.
He said he had researched the locations of other solar fields in Illinois and found that the majority of them are sited one-half mile to three miles away from the nearest residential areas. As an alternative, he suggested situating the solar field behind the water plant or on the building’s roof.
Link also complained about potential health risks associated with the electro-magnetic field around the power generating field. EMFs have been linked with higher incidences of cancer in some areas. “I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life having to worry about this installation 90 feet from my door,” he said. He also expressed concerns about the project’s potential to interfere with radio reception in the area. “Who’s going to maintain this plant and address those concerns?” he asked.
Responding to Link, Mayor John Hicks said the solar field location is zoned for light industrial use. Additionally, City Attorney Kevin Polo said, the city has other municipal infrastructure in residential areas in other parts of the city, suggesting the city government is exempt from some zoning requirements.
City Treasurer Dan Fisher said project managers considered alternate locations for the field, including the roof of the water plant, and determined the six lots on the south side of the water plant was the optimum location. Moving the field to the rear of the plant would require making the field 30 percent larger to meet power generating needs because of differences in the amount of sunlight the two locations receive. He scoffed at the idea of suspending the project because the city is obligated to pay back the cost of the project over the next seven years. Fisher said the project cost totals about $450,000, which presumably includes the cost of property acquisition.
“If we were to end that project today,” Fisher said, “we would have to raise everyone’s water rate for $2.45.” Funds to pay back the loan, he said, will come from the $50,000 per year in estimated cost savings the solar field is expected to generate for the water plant operation.
Link said he was especially angered by the council’s “lack of respect” for nearby property owners. “You’re not having any consideration for surrounding property owners,” he said. “When I bought that property from the city it was nothing but a field. I put my hard work into it. Tonight is not the end of this. I intend to fight this as far as I can. This is unacceptable.”
CDAP GRANT APPLICATION
On a motion by Ald. Dave Tucker, seconded by Ald. Wendy Rolando, the council voted unanimously to apply for a Community Development Assistance Program grant in the amount of $317,736.07, which will effectively reimburse the city for funds the city returned to the state last year when It dissolved its Revolving Loan Fund program. The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity required the city to close out the revolving loan program when the state decided it would end its support of such programs for small communities.
The action followed a brief public hearing held prior to the council meeting during which Fisher explained details of the action.
By reimbursing the money in the form of a CDAP grant, the city can use the funds for civic improvement projects which must be completed within two years. Fisher said a likely use for the funds will be subsurface work that needs to be done before the city potentially embarks on completing a streetscape project proposed by the Grow Gillespie organization in downtown Gillespie. That project would include reconfiguring parking spaces, the addition of green spaces and other amenities designed to attract new businesses to downtown Gillespie. Subsurface work would include projects such as storm sewer improvements and installing underground utilities.
Voting 4-2, the council terminated an unindentified Water Department employee. The action followed an hour-long executive session to discuss employee disciplinary action and the sale of real estate.
There was no public discussion of the employee’s alleged infraction.
Ald. Tucker, Ald. Rolando, Ald. Dona Rauzi and Ald. Bill Hayes all voted in favor of termination. Ald. Jerry Dolliger voted against the measure, as did Ald. Frank Barrett after a moment of indecision. Ald. Rick Fulton did not attend Monday’s meeting.
BLACK DIAMOND DAYS LABOR DAY EVENT
A discussion about the success of the Black Diamond Days Labor Day Lake Bash became somewhat heated after an alderman questioned the amount of money the city spent in support of the event. Teressa Pettit, president of the Black Diamond Days Committee, said the two-day event was “a great success for us.”
“Our Saturday alone was better for us than our whole Black Diamond Days this year,” she said. “We’re very proud of what we did out there.”
She said a shuttle bus providing transportation from the city to the lake worked out very well to get attendees to the festival site while limiting the level of vehicular traffic at the lake.
Pettit said a number of people asked committee members if the event would be an annual affair, and she said the consensus of the committee was that they would continue to sponsor a Labor Day event at the lake in the future.
Ald. Rauzi questioned Pettit about changing quiet time at the lake campground from 11 p.m. to midnight to accommodate the band playing for the event. Lake manager Gary Thornhill said volunteers “pre-called every camper and none of them had a problem with it.”
Rauzi then turned her attention to costs the city may have incurred in conjunction with the event. With police and lake employees on hand, personnel costs could exceed $1,000, according to Rauzi. But Thornhill countered that the lake employees involved with the event volunteered their time and were not “on the clock.” Rauzi said she understood that two Street Department employees delivered the Black Diamond Days stage to the festival site and set up the stage. Ald. Dolliger, who also serves on the Black Diamond Days Committee, said the stage was delivered to the lake but was not set up and was not used for the event.
Other organizations could expect city support for their events because of the level of support the city has extended to Black Diamond Days and the Lake Bash, Rauzi said. “We can’t afford to do this two or three times a year for one organization,” she said. She noted that when the committee sought permission for the Lake Bash, there was a discussion about the organization reimbursing the city for its costs. Proceeds from the event reportedly were donated to the Gillespie Fire Department.
“The city has always kicked in for Black Diamond Days because it was something for the people,” Mayor Hicks said. “I don’t mind helping to the point that it helps the city.” He said the events bring out-of-town visitors to the city and contributes to the economy.
Pettit returned to the meeting after the executive session and presented the council with a check for $123.22 to cover the cost of paying two Street Department workers for the time they spent delivering the stage to the lake.
“This really has me upset,” she said. “We’ve tried to keep Black Diamond Days going for the community. We have gone above and beyond to keep it going.” She said committee members paid for food served during the Lake Bash out of their own pockets. She said Ald. Barrett volunteered time during the Lake Bash to run the Wheel of Fortune, but she asked why other aldermen and city officials did not attend or help with the event.
Rauzi said she brought up the issue only because it had been a point of discussion during the meeting when the council granted permission to use the lake for the Lake Bash.
Ald. Dolliger said he’s served on the committee for many years and that the committee has given back to the community many times in the past. The committee was responsible, he said, for erecting welcome signs at the city limits several years ago. “Back then we were selling 300 barrels of beer,” he said. “Now we’re lucky if we sell 90.”
Pettit promised that the 2020 edition of Black Diamond Days will be improved over this past summer’s event. First and foremost, she said, the group will bring back carnival rides for the downtown street festival.
RENTAL CABIN PROPOSAL SQUELCHED
Tempers again flared after Ald. Barrett again proposed using the Gillespie High School building trades class to build a rental cabin for campers at Gillespie Lake. The receipt of a $20,000 insurance settlement for damage to a lake pavilion makes it feasible to proceed with the project at this time.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t do this,” he said.
Ald. Rauzi questioned the feasibility of the project, however. With 1,200 acres of water surface, the City of Litchfield has only two rental cabins at Lake Lou Yeager. With only 500 acres of surface area, she doubted the addition of a rental cabin would be a practical move for the city. The cabin would provide a camping facility for persons who “can’t afford a camper,” Barrett said. No bedding or other amenities would be provided, though the structure would be air-conditioned.
“I don’t understand your problem with this,” Barrett told Rauzi.
Rauzi responded that expenditures at the lake outstrip revenues virtually every month. “We’re $8,000 in the hole this month,” she said. “Last month we were $4,000 in the hole.”
“I’ve got to go with Dona on the cabin,” Fisher said. “What I’ve said over and over again is that you need to make a plan and show the council how it fits into your plan.”
“Down the road we might be able to do something like this,” Ald. Hayes said. At the moment, he said the city has more pressing needs for money, including the ongoing water infrastructure project, a failing roof on the Civic Center and additional needed work at the lake spillway. “What’s the public going to say if we go out there and start building cabins. I’m not against building a cabin but right now is not the right time.”
CIVIC CENTER ROOF
After several minutes of discussion, the council authorized hiring an engineer to develop specifications and drawings to reconfigure Civic Center bathrooms to comply with ADA requirements for disabled persons. Mayor Hicks said he could give up the Mayor’s office space to make more room for revamping bathrooms.
Ald. Rauzi briefly reported about continuing problems with the Civic Center roof. Ultimately, she said, the entire roof needs to replaced. Making spot repairs has not proven effective because of the deteriorated condition of the roof. Hicks said the solution to the issue would be to construct a peaked roof over the entire complex to eliminate a valley between the original Civic Center and a later addition, but he worried that the cost of the change would be prohibitive.
Ultimately, the council agreed to have an engineer design a new peaked roof and develop cost estimates for the project with an eye toward making a decision on whether or not to proceed at a later date.
The council deferred a decision on authorizing the Police Department to remodel a portion of the Police Station to reduce the size of the waiting room and expand the space for dispatchers pending the receipt of additional bids. Police Chief Jared DePoppe said he had bids from two contractors and was awaiting a bid from a third vendor.
Council members voted unanimously to give the committee power to act on accepting a bid to demolish a blower housing located along the Benld-Gillespie Bike Trail to make way for an easement to accommodate an Ameren power transmission line.
POLICE CHIEF’S HEALTH
Police Chief DePoppe publicly discredited a persistent rumor that he is ill. He said he typically doesn’t respond to rumors but that the rumor that he is suffering from cancer has become so widespread that he felt compelled to announce that he is healthy.
“It’s not true,” DePoppe said. “I did lose some weight. I worked very hard to do that to get healthier and be a better Chief of Police. I don’t think I’ve been this healthy in 10 years. Normally I’d ignore the rumor but I wanter to make it very clear that I am not sick.”
NEW BUSINESS COMING TO GILLESPIE
The council heard briefly from Dave Schmidt who has applied for a business license to open a new business in the 300 block of South Macoupin Street to buy, sell and trade cellular phones, electronic games and movies. The new business, expected to open in October, will be called “Dootzy’s.”
“I did this before in Trenton and in Collinsville and it worked out very well,” Schmidt said.
In other action, the council:
- Approved an ordinance authorizing the sale of a city-owned home at 205 Francis Street. The property was acquired by the city as a result of a public nuisance case. The home will be offered contract-for-deed with a provision that the buyer make necessary improvements to bring the structure into compliance with city building codes.
- Approved an ordinance authorizing an agreement with the Macoupin County Public Health Department’s Maple Street Clinic to provide employee drug testing, vaccinations and other services. Police Chief DePoppe outlined the nature of the agreement during last month’s meeting of the council.
- Authorized payment of $661,635.41 to Haier Plumbing and Heating and $19,681.60 to Curry and Associates Engineers for work completed to date on the water infrastructure improvement project.
- Approved a lake lot lease transfer for 2 Circle Drive to Kevin and Colette Edson.
- Voted to declare a vacant home at 903 S. Madison as a public nuisance and proceed with legal action to abate the nuisance.
- Authorized expenditure of $1,315 to pay for repairs to a sewer line in the 900 block of Clinton Street that was severed during the construction of the water infrastructure improvement project.