WOODSTOCK – After six hours of discussion, the Woodstock City Council approved a controversial proposal about 1 a.m. Wednesday to mine gravel and build a multi-purpose events venue along Route 14.
Council members approved a special use permit for the proposal, 6-1, with 50 conditions.
Community members who spoke at the meeting sent two strong messages: They supported the idea of building a baseball stadium in the community, but they asked council members to take the time to study the proposal and answer questions rather than rushing into a decision.
"It needs to be done in the right way for the right reasons," said Kim Willis of McHenry, who spoke on behalf of the McHenry County Environmental Defenders organization.
Willis and other speakers expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of the project and the speed with which it was moving through the approval process.
The City Council approved a special use permit that allows Tom Merryman and his company, Merryman Aggregate Inc., to mine gravel on part of a 240-acre parcel off of Route 14 near Lake Shore Drive that may become the McHenry County fairgrounds in seven to 15 years. The special use permit also would allow for the construction of a baseball stadium and other potential venues and exhibition halls on the site.
Merryman has said he would not disturb an oak savanna or high-quality wetlands on the site, but would make sure that they were protected by a conservation easement.
Attorney Tom Zanck, who spoke on behalf of Merryman, told the council members that the project would not move forward without their vote of approval at Tuesday's City Council meeting. If they postponed making a decision on the proposal until January, it would be too late for a new minor league baseball team to begin playing at the stadium in the summer of 2010. For that to happen, Merryman had to start leveling the ground in March so stadium developer Equity One Sports Development could break ground on the stadium by June.
If the stadium has not been constructed by May 1, 2014, Merryman would deed the 38-acre parcel for the stadium to the City of Woodstock, according to one of the permit's 50 conditions.
Up to 18 other organizations have expressed interest in locating their facility on the site, Zanck said, including the Northern Illinois Fire Museum. Engineering plans for each additional facility would have to be approved by city staff before they were constructed.
Council members also asked for more details about the mining operation. Zanck said the mining would not turn the site into one large gravel pit.
"This is not going to be a hole in the ground," he said. "This is going to be a phased project."
The 124 acres of the site proposed for gravel mining would be divided into several parcels. One parcel would be mined at a time, and the reclamation on each parcel would begin as soon as the mining was complete, Zanck explained.
Merryman said under current market conditions, he would need to mine only about 60 days each year to meet demand. Mining would be allowed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, according to a condition of the special use permit. He expected to mine at least 1 million tons of aggregate, which would translate into about 6,500 truckloads of gravel each year.
The special use permit allows mining on the site for 15 years, but if the McHenry County Fair Association is ready to purchase and develop the property after seven years, Merryman has agreed to stop mining and turn the property over to the fair board, Zanck said.
The proposal also had many supporters.
"I do believe the economic benefits and the entertainment benefits outweigh some of the detriments," said Diane Herendeen of Woodstock. Council member Maureen Larson pointed out that the project would create jobs, would generate sales tax and property tax, and would save oak trees, all at no cost to the city.
"The pro side is just a lot bigger than the con side to me," Larson said.
Council member Richard Ahrens was the only person to vote against the project.
"I did it from a sense of fiscal responsibility," Ahrens said after the meeting. He was concerned that approving a special use permit for a festival grounds would discourage other potential manufacturing businesses from locating there.
"Is it the highest and best use of this property?" Ahrens asked during the meeting. "... I'm just not sure that I want a 120 acres of what could potentially be a strong commercial or industrial corridor in Woodstock taken up with a nonprofit organization, something that doesn't have the ability to generate potentially high-paying jobs [or] strong property taxes to contribute to our tax base."
Now that the Woodstock City Council has approved his special use permit to mine gravel and turn a piece of Woodstock farmland into a multi-purpose events venue, Tom Merryman must submit engineering plans for the project to city administrators, who will review and approve them. Merryman hopes to begin work on the site in March, said his attorney Tom Zanck. Stadium construction ideally would begin in June, and the first minor league baseball game would take place in the summer of 2010, Zanck said.