Winnetka officials adopt stormwater plan

After almost a year of planning, Winnetka lawmakers adopted the village's controversial "Stormwater Master Plan" - despite both claims the project could result in polluted stormwater getting into Lake Michigan and the results of a recent referendum on the proposal that showed a majority of voters against the plan.

"I'm a supporter of this," said Trustee Jack Buck. "I have been since day one. I'm definitely in favor of moving forward. We've been talking about this for years."

Others in Winnetka, including village trustees, have balked at the suggestion that the plan represents an environmental threat to Lake Michigan.

"I grew up on the lake," Buck said. "I am not going to want to pollute the lake. It's a little disingenuous for you to think we want to pollute the lake. Does anybody on the board want to do that? Absolutely not."

Supporters of the project also have said the March referendum question was not representative of the majority of residents in the village.

They have said Winnetka must take immediate and meaningful action to address a serious and long-standing stormwater flooding problem that over 10 years has impacted as many as 1,000 homes in the village.

Trustees voted 5 to 0 at their April 17 meeting to adopt the 77-page master plan.

The plan is designed to create a comprehensive approach to addressing the village's flooding problem and to guide decisions on infrastructure and development projects. It also aims to set priorities for stormwater and sanitary sewer funding, establish policy guidance for future decision-making and provide a consistent framework for action with a long-term outlook, village staff members have said.

The plan calls for spending about $41 million on flood mitigation efforts that would include the possible construction of an eight-foot diameter storm sewer tunnel underneath Willow Road running from approximately Glendale Avenue to Lake Michigan, village staff said.

Parts of Winnetka have faced a flooding problem for years, and the issue came to forefront in 2011 after a sever summer rainstorm caused widespread flooding.

"There is no other viable option," said Trustee Richard Kates. "We've been waiting for the people who talk about the options available. We have heard tonight no other options. If we had heard others that were viable, we would have considered them."

More than 100 people turned out for the April 17 village board meeting.

Some, like resident Mike Canman, urged the board to immediately adopt the master plan as a way to address what they called a systemic, village-wide flooding problem.

Canman also said homeowners in the village who experience flooding are starting to get nervous as the spring rainy season approaches. Winnetka needs to do something, he said.

"This is an 80-year neglect of our stormwater infrastructure," Canman said.

But others said the village should reconsider the controversial tunnel project, which they argued that, if built, will result in thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater runoff being dumped into Lake Michigan during severe rain.

Opponents of the plan also criticized the village for what they said was a lack of communication on the project with residents and pointed to the March referendum, in which a majority of voters said they did not approve of the tunnel plan as now written.

"Villagers have sent emails letters, made phone calls and appeared here in person to voice their concerns," resident Kim Handler told trustees. "Those who object to the plan have been treated rudely and dismissively and even harassed outside these chambers. Thousands turned out for the referendum to vote. The results of that referendum, a loud and clear 'no.' "

But trustees defended their support for the master plan, saying that in the past year, the village had held dozens of public meetings on the proposal.

"The one thing I concluded fairly early on is that doing nothing is not an option," said Trustee Stuart McCrary. "The only thing I can't abide is that we can't afford it because it's just too expensive."

Officials also said the village is working with engineering firms on the plan and that Winnetka must get regulatory approval from various governmental agencies for the project, something they said will ensure stormwater moving into Lake Michigan is not polluted.

"The plan has got to satisfy me environmentally," McCrary said. "The details aren't in this. It's a plan and I like where it's going. This is our best effort. Everybody's going to be disappointed and if that's the case we probably did our job right."

Trustees also pointed out that the master plan is essentially an outline.

They said the board will be required to take additional votes in coming months on many aspects of the stormwater sewer project. Officials also will have to vote to award millions of dollars in engineering and construction contracts, they said.

"This is not cast in stone. Not in my book," said board President Gene Greable. "This is a living document."

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