Local officials grill EPA on sewer changes - Quad-Cities Online: Illinois

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Local officials grill EPA on sewer changes

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Posted: Saturday, August 15, 1998 1:00 am

CHICAGO (AP) -- Sounding like patient but firm parents, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials repeatedly explained why they want to get out of local development disputes.

But city and county leaders from northern Illinois blasted the agency's plans at a stormy informational meeting on Thursday, warning of urban chaos and complaining that they are being abandoned.

The debate centers on the IEPA's little-understood but vitally important role in deciding sanitary sewer boundaries in the state. The decisions have little to do with water quality issues, the IEPA argues, and instead have become a powerful weapon in local battles for control of contested property and development rights.

``I guess it's our fault, and we're trying to fix it,'' said James Park, chief of the IEPA's bureau of water.

But fixing the agency's problem would only make things worse for local governments in heavily populated northeastern Illinois and the expanding urban ring around Chicago, local leaders argued.

That's because the location of sewers is a key factor in how and where development occurs. And development means new revenue to the controlling government, through taxes and fees.

``They're absolutely right,'' said Bruce Trego, village manager of South Barrington. ``It's an antiquated system, it's time-consuming, it's costly.

``But that's the very essence of why it is helpful in the development and sprawl issues,'' he said. ``Because if you can't get sewer, you can't get development.''

The IEPA decides who controls facilities planning areas -- territories where one entity has exclusive rights to develop the sewer system. The FPA process is a remnant of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, originally designed so states could bring some order and reliability to wastewater treatment systems built with federal grants.

But even as those grants began to dry up, local governments were learning they could use the FPA process to lock in control of property that they might not use for years to come, or to protect a vulnerable area in their community from an aggressive neighboring government eager to develop it.

One community can challenge another's FPA control, resulting in a sometimes lengthy and frequently expensive hearing process with the IEPA. A number of such disputes are underway right now, and Park says they divert money and staff time from other agency efforts.

Agency officials said Illinois is one of the last states clinging to the FPA process, and said local governments can decide the issues with such traditional methods as annexation, zoning and negotiation. The IEPA would still issue permits for sewer construction, to ensure the local watershed is protected.

But local leaders worry their tools won't be enough without some state involvement, leading to local bidding wars in which competing governments charge their taxpayers to build redundant sewer systems in an effort to lure lucrative commercial development.

``The FPA process has allowed counties and communities to work together ... essentially forced us to sit down'' with each other, said Sam Santell, Kane County's planning director. ``We should be strengthening that and not looking to eliminate it.''

Park said comments from meeting participants would be included with those from a formal public hearing last month in Springfield. The agency has not set a timetable for dissolving the FPA process and is considering suggestions that it be phased out to alleviate some of the local concerns.

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