Fleming Road residents prevail

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BULL VALLEY – The Fleming Road Alliance’s arsenal of yellow ribbons and clever signs, along with a healthy measure of dogged determination, may have saved its scenic drive from destruction.

It took 2 years of fighting with the McHenry County Division of Transportation, but the group of homeowners has tentatively secured a plan that will fix the deteriorated road without widening it or installing improvements they say would destroy the tree-lined drive of rolling hills and flowers.

Cementing the agreement is a construction process just authorized in April by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The process, called cold in-place recycling, will grind out the surface and part of the road bed one lane at a time, using the grounded up old road itself to help lay down the new one.

The McHenry County Board Transportation Committee approved the idea last month, and work is expected to begin in the spring.

Alliance member and Bull Valley Trustee Emily Berendt said she and others are cautiously optimistic that the 2-mile-long road will be built in its existing footprint, with no efforts to widen it or add what they call unnecessary improvements.

“It’s been quite an endurance run, but we feel we have reached an agreement, and we hope it moves along quickly and takes care of the problem,” Berendt said.

Few alliance members argue the decaying, pothole-filled road connecting Route 120 and Country Club Road is falling apart – it was first paved in 1966 and last repaved in 2003. County transportation officials in January 2010 informed residents of their intent to rebuild the road.

But their plans as first presented would have put much of the scenery and 200-year-old trees in one of the county’s last oak hickory forests in jeopardy, according to residents. Environmentalists also worried because about 1 miles of Fleming Road run through a portion of the Boone Creek Fen groundwater recharge area.

Original plans called for widening the lanes from 10 feet to 12 feet, widening the shoulder from 1 foot to 4 feet, adding a 3-foot ditch and a 14-foot clear zone. In short, the road’s footprint would almost double, and in the eyes of residents, take a lot of the scenery and rolling hills with it.

Signs, ribbons, easements

Residents became skeptical of officials’ assurances that they would not add lanes or increase capacity. Some residents suspected that the county had an ulterior motive of using the road as a high-capacity connector between Routes 120 and 14. The price tag – $5 million plus $500,000 for right of way under the latest five-year county transportation plan – added to residents’ concerns that the county had much more in mind.

Citizens banded together and formed the alliance to argue the road could be rehabilitated in the exact same footprint. They were active participants in the Community Advisory Group that MCDOT formed to talk about the project scope. However, to alliance members, engineers kept coming back with the same plan with minor tweaks.

Members started planting road signs along with daffodils that volunteers have maintained for years, such as “Scenic Route, Not Truck Route” and “Daffodils, Not Asphalt.” They tied ribbons around jeopardized trees, placing signs for trees more than two centuries old.

The alliance last year succeeded in getting their road designated as a McHenry County Scenic Drive by the county Historic Preservation Commission. But not all of the alliance’s actions were symbolic – the 20 conservation easements that residents filed with the Land Conservancy of McHenry County carried legal weight.

Each easement is held three ways with the landowner, the land conservancy and Bull Valley, all of whom have to agree on the sale of each property. The county would have had a protracted fight to acquire all the right of way, given that the village and the land conservancy share residents’ concerns about the project.

In January, two years into the fight, the County Board instructed MCDOT in no uncertain terms that it wanted the residents heeded and the road rehabilitated in its existing footprint.

Some board members chided transportation officials. Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, told them “enough with the engineering, and do what we want you to do,” adding that the county “pretend[s] to listen to [constituents], but we really don’t.”

“After all of the [community] meetings, I don’t know why you’re still talking about reconstruction when the County Board and constituents have been saying they want it rehabilitated, repaired and kept in the same footprint,” board Vice Chairman John Jung, R-Woodstock, told them.

Berendt called the meeting a “watershed moment” in the alliance’s dealings with MCDOT. Three months later, the state would authorize the process that would facilitate rehabilitating the road without ripping up the countryside.

“This plan will not require right of way [acquisition],” alliance member Mary Moltmann said. “That’s been a very big concern with us.”

The process

Cold in-place recycling is not a new process, Assistant County Engineer Jeff Young said. What’s new is that IDOT has set down the rules for its use after years of study.

“It’s been around, but for Illinois, specifically as a local agency, we rely on state specifications for construction methods and practices,” Young said. “If the state doesn’t have a set of rules to do something in particular, it makes it very difficult for a local agency to put a bid on it.”

A train of vehicles will pulverize the pavement into a granular base, add a stabilizing agent, and pave new asphalt on top of it. Tentative plans call for imposing a one-way detour on Fleming Road – but which way is yet to be determined.

While Berendt and other alliance members want work to be done this year, Young said next spring will be more likely. The process requires warm and rising temperatures, which would be hard to come by with summer planning and bidding and a fall start time. Only six companies – four in Illinois and one each in Wisconsin and Indiana – are certified by IDOT to do such work, according to state records.

“If you get a start in October, you can’t be guaranteed you can consistently get the temperatures you need,” Young said.

However, alliance members said they fully intend to watch the process and make sure that the final plans follow their wishes – reinforced by the County Board – to the letter.

“We will be present for that, too, and we will be monitoring,” Moltmann said.

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