Visitors might not be able to tell when passing through, but McHenry County is teeming with buried treasure.
Beneath the surface of thousands of acres of land are unclaimed aggregate materials such as sand and gravel. The glaciers that played a part in shaping the county’s landscape left behind the materials that are mined today.
But gravel pit operators don’t often make the best neighbors, McHenry County residents frequently claim. Names and faces might have changed over the years, but arguments about noise, dust, pollution and groundwater contamination have remained.
It seems the debate might shift to the city of McHenry next. Meyer Material Co. has requested to renew agreements with the city to continue to allow mining operations on Route 120 through 2032.
Despite residents’ protests, the proposal has gained approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and the McHenry City Council will consider it in April.
Nearby, the village of Lakemoor found itself at the center of a zoning debate this past week.
Thelen Sand and Gravel Inc., which owns more than 700 acres and has been mining about 182 acres north of Route 120 and south of Lincoln Road, wants to expand operations. At the last Village Board meeting, officials agreed to allow an expansion.
“It was very discouraging to us,” neighbor Jeanette Schloemer said. “This came up very quickly and was handled fast. This was on purpose to give the public little time to respond.”
Thelen Executive Vice President Dan Shepard had a straightforward response to inquiries about the proposed expansion.
“We want to mine the land that we own,” he told the Northwest Herald in January.
Spring Grove, Cary and Marengo also have seen their share of gravel pit politics.
Meyer Material Co. ceased operations in December after 23 years, despite numerous attempts to obtain an extension from the village. The property should transfer into Cary’s hands by June.
Conflicted opinions on the industry in McHenry County have deep roots. The mining industry once was largely unregulated in the county and mired in confusing laws, deep pockets and lawsuits.
McHenry County now boasts some of the strictest mining regulations in Illinois for the multimillion-dollar industry, said Shawn McKinney of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, a trade association representing owners and operators of quarries and gravel pits.
“McHenry County has some of the best gravel, sand and mining resources in the entire Midwest,” he said. “McHenry County is also unique in that it has some of the strongest regulations of mining of any county in Illinois.”
About 3,764 acres in McHenry County is used for mining today. This is down from 4,888 acres in 2009, according to McHenry County land use records.
No one interviewed for this story could estimate how many dollars’ worth of materials are taken out of McHenry County land annually. The IAAP does not track sales because it’s against regulations, McKinney said.
In 1990, the estimated value of the industry was $100 million, according to previous Northwest Herald reports.
For what it’s worth, McHenry County sees little of whatever revenue is generated, McHenry County planning and development director Dennis Sandquist said.
Sales tax isn’t paid on raw material or material for public or governmental construction projects, which means little is returned to the county. But there are other benefits, Sandquist said.
“The primary benefit to the county isn’t to the government,” he said. “It’s to residents, businesses and the communities that have access to gravel for construction.”
Because of the weight of extracted materials, costs exponentially increase the farther they are trucked away from their origin, Sandquist said.
“The more local it is, the better it is for the county and construction industry,” he said. “I think industry representatives would say that in other parts of the state where they don’t have an abundance [of mining resources] construction, costs go up.”
McHenry County’s 2030 plan calls for preservation of agricultural land that has not yet been mined. Policies also exist that call for mined land to be reclaimed. Many mines that McHenry County has jurisdiction over – including those on incorporated parcels – are returned to agricultural use, Sandquist said.
“The county should continue to support the aggregate industry, which provides jobs and other benefits to our economy while continuing to protect environmentally sensitive areas and groundwater quality,” county planning documents read.
Municipalities that hold regulatory control over mining operations within their boundaries also have established policies regarding land reclamation. Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake sits on property that previously was mined.
A former Holiday Hills pit now serves as an extension to Moraine Hills State Park. A pit recently reclaimed in Hebron Township also has been returned to agriculture and wetlands.
And about 600 acres of Thelen’s property ultimately will end up in Lakemoor’s hands. The village also will get 10 cents a ton of material extracted.
Lakemoor Village President Todd Weihofen said he feels the benefit outweighs the cons.
“When you take into account that McHenry County is pro-aggregate extraction, they wouldn’t have even had to annex [to] Lakemoor,” Weihofen said. “They would have had to do it through the county, and then we would have no enforcement over it.
“We will work to ensure they are good stewards and show respect to the neighbors.”