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The "Prairie Parkway" Story

February 04, 2002
By H. Lee Murphy

In Yorkville, once a sleepy hub of cafes and grain elevators serving Kendall County farmers, the school district is under siege. A high school opened three years ago already has reached its 800-student capacity, and officials are lobbying voters to approve a March 19 referendum to raise $8 million for an addition.

School District 115 faces a long building agenda even if the expansion is approved. In an amazing two-week period in January, the city received applications from homebuilders for eight subdivisions totaling 5,100 houses.

Planners, who watched nervously as Yorkville's population doubled to 7,000 between 1990 and 2000, are predicting the influx of another 19,000 residents over the next 10 years.

"We could be at a population of 35,000 by 2020," says City Administrator Anton Graff. "Maybe 50,000 some time after that."

That kind of rapid growth is fueling a bitter local debate over the proposed Prairie Parkway, a 33-mile, four-lane road that would run north and south connecting Interstates 80 and 88, bisecting the historically agricultural county in the process. Opponents warn that the parkway would gobble up prime farmland, promote urban sprawl and turn the region's bucolic way of life upside down.

"The parkway would go right through some of the best farmland we have and destroy family businesses here. It would cut farmers from the west off from grain elevators to the east," complains Dan Reedy, manager of the Kendall County Farm Bureau, whose 435 members are on record as opposing the plan. Mr. Reedy estimates that the 400-foot-wide parkway would consume 1,500 acres or more of farmland.

But with or without a parkway, development is descending on Kendall County communities like Oswego, Plano and Yorkville. Much of it is driven by middle-class homebuyers working in nearby Naperville or Aurora, where new houses priced at less than $300,000 are becoming rare. Land in Kendall is plentiful and cheap — enabling builders to turn a profit on $175,000 houses.

This change is accompanied by a range of concerns. Local schools are scrambling to build more classrooms. Two-lane country roads adequate for tractors hopscotching between farm fields are now clogged with commuters' cars. Municipal officials are struggling to keep a lid on their budgets while trying to figure out how to bring water, sewers and other services to the new houses sprouting up.

As a group, local farmers may oppose the Prairie Parkway, which has the powerful backing of U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Yorkville, but individually, many are cashing out of their century-old homesteads.

Vacant land that sold for $2,500 to $3,500 an acre in the 1980s today can fetch $20,000 from homebuilders, who have found no shortage of farmers willing to sell.

Girding for the onslaught

The biggest buyer of all has been Oak Brook-based Inland Real Estate Development Corp., which has amassed some 4,000 acres in two dozen tracts around the county over the past 15 years. The company is marketing about 400 acres near Plano on U.S. 34 west of state Route 47, about a half-mile east of the proposed Prairie Parkway corridor. Inland has designated 70 acres of the parcel for commercial use.

The parkway might not get built for 10 years. Yet Inland Senior Vice-president Matthew Fiascone believes that approval of the road, including a likely four-way interchange at U.S. 34, would ignite interest in his company's holdings.

"Growth is going to happen in Kendall County no matter what," he says. "But if the parkway is okayed, it could accelerate developments like ours by three to five years. Time is money in our business, so the parkway would give us a boost."

Officials in Kendall, which saw its population rise 38% between 1990 and 2000, to 54,500, are girding for the onslaught.

Plano, with a population of 5,600, according to the 2000 Census, is considering an annexation agreement from one development group for 821 acres subdivided for 2,550 homes, which would more than double the town's population. There are plans that haven't yet reached the city for more than 3,200 homes on two other big parcels.

Ponying up for infrastructure

This is heady stuff for a town that issued fewer than a dozen building permits last year.

Nevertheless, Plano Mayor William R. Roberts supports the parkway, which would have an interchange within a half-mile of downtown.

"I think it could relieve the traffic congestion by getting cars off of some of our other roads," he says. "And it would attract more industrial development here, which would be great for our tax base."

First, though, there is the matter of utilities. Plano's wastewater treatment facility is already near its 1-million-gallon-a-day capacity. Mayor Roberts estimates that a 1-million-gallon expansion would cost $10 million.

"We don't have that kind of money," he says. "As developers come here, they're going to have to pay for new infrastructure."

Says Mark T. Goodwin, president and owner of Goodwin & Associates in Shorewood, a speculator in rural real estate: "The availability of water and sewer will drive land prices and development."

Once the alignment of the Prairie Parkway is set, he predicts developers will rush to secure parcels around the interchanges. "There's no reason why we won't see commercial development around the corridor. Developers will be trying to get themselves positioned early on by buying up land."

Broader development sought

Much of the early wave of growth in Kendall County — outside of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Plano opened in 1996 and a Jewel-Osco under construction in York-ville — has involved residential development. Officials are hoping that new construction will become more diverse.

In Oswego, for instance, the population has soared from fewer than 4,000 residents in 1990 to 16,000, with a rise to more than 25,000 likely by 2010. Fifteen subdivisions are under way and another 10 are likely to be proposed this year.

But the village is just now seeing the completion of its first major shopping center, a 500,000-square-foot complex built by Minnesota-based Ryan Cos. and anchored by Home Depot, Target and Dominick's Finer Foods.

Oswego also is trying to generate interest in industrial sites along Orchard Road.

"We're a bedroom community now," says Village Administrator Carrie Hansen."The biggest challenge we face is the need to broaden our economic development."

Outside of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and a few others, most large-format retailers have shunned rural markets. But that attitude is changing.

"We've seen corridors like Route 59 in Plainfield and Randall Road in Batavia go from green to mature development in very short periods of time," says Michael George, a principal at Mid-America Real Estate Corp. in Oakbrook Terrace, which represents many big merchants. "We've developed a respect now for outlying communities in Kendall and other counties that we once thought were too remote to consider for development."

Metra, meanwhile, is eyeing a plan to extend commuter train service that now ends in Aurora into Oswego and Yorkville, and perhaps even to Sandwich.

Brook McDonald, executive director of the Conservation Foundation in Naperville, worries that such an extension would doom open-space preservation efforts in large swaths of Kendall County.

"Commuter train service in the county might relieve some traffic congestion, but it also could promote sprawl," he says.

Effort to control sprawl

Mr. McDonald has joined forces with a group of influential residents, including County Board Chairman John Church, who are readying an alternative parkway plan. They intend to propose an alignment east of Route 47, between Yorkville and Oswego, through an area that already has experienced development. Their aim: to preserve the rural character in the western half of Kendall.

Is there any way to contain developers, regardless of where the parkway is built? Maybe not.

Angelo Kleronomos, president and owner of Property Concepts Inc. in Oswego, has acquired 750 acres in the town and built 800 houses. Recently, he struck a deal for 150 acres in Yorkville, where he hopes to put up 300 houses.

"A lot of land farther west in Kendall County is still being used for agricultural purposes, but these will become hot spots eventually," he predicts. "Growth will be hard to stop."