Chestnut big winner

Chestnut big winner by David Lias An issue that's been a center of controversy in Vermillion since December 2000 was settled Tuesday � by the people.

Voters overwhelmingly gave the Vermillion City Council permission to proceed with the $1.3 million Chestnut Street project.

The project received 809 affirmative votes, which is approximately 68 percent of the votes cast. Votes against the project totaled 375, which is slightly more than 31 percent.

In other city races, Drake Olson won a second term as Central Ward alderman. He received 147 votes, or 62.55 percent of votes cast. His challenger, Kate Bingen, received 88 votes, or 37.45 percent of the vote.

Tom Davies will represent the Northwest Ward on the city council. He received 207 votes; which is approximately 73 percent of the total cast in the race. His challenger, Nathan J. Adams, received 76 votes, or 26.86 percent of the vote.

Total voter turnout in the city was 1,194, which is approximately 17.6 percent. Turnout was 18.64 percent, 14.34 percent and 18.73 percent in the Northwest, Central and Northeast/Southeast wards respectively.

Mayor Roger Kozak arrived at the Clay County Courthouse Tuesday night to watch election workers count the ballots.

Kozak has campaigned diligently throughout the community, urging approval of the street project. The process hasn't been easy � opponents of the street project have questioned Kozak's tactics and claimed that he's strived to stop a public referral of the council's Chestnut action.

He was delighted with the citizens' decision.

"As I look at the percentage variance between those who are for and those who are against, I believe we have received a very strong message that the citizens who have participated in this election certainly want this street to be completed," Kozak said. "I do believe that we have been given a mandate to go forward in order to complete the project as quickly and as timely as we can."

Kozak admitted that he was a bit surprised that the street project was approved by a wide margin.

Vermillion voters have already gone to the polls once to decide an Chestnut-related issue, and the outcome was closer. In the November 2002 general election, nearly 55

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percent of voters gave the city approval to proceed with condemnation of private property needed for the project.

Approximately 45 percent of the votes cast in November were against condemnation.

"I guess when I look at 68 percent to 32 percent, I am surprised," Kozak said, "because it was quite close on the condemnation proceedings, so I thought it would parallel that voting."

Tuesday's election outcome, he said, "is a very resounding message (from citizens) that say 'we want to get that street done.'"

The most vocal critics of the project have been Neil and Lynette Melby. Their home is on the bluff above the street, and before the election, the city was in the process of condemning some of their land for the street project.

"I guess it was always important to us that we get the chance to vote," Neil Melby said Wednesday. "We will respect the decision of the voters."

Chestnut Street has been a controversy in Vermillion for nearly two decades. Some improvement work was begun in the 1980s, but the project didn't progress far.

In December 2000, the Vermillion City Council passed a motion to proceed with plans to upgrade the street.

The estimated $1.3 million price tag for the project will be funded by $620,000 of the city's second penny sales tax revenue and $691,000 of Federal Aid To Urban (FAU) funds.

The lion's share of the cost of the street work � approximately $900,000 � will be used to construct a retaining wall south of the street between the railroad tracks. The wall is required by the railroad before the city can fill in the slope by the tracks to widen the street to 28 feet.

Petitions to refer the street project to a public vote were filed in January 2001. Later that month, following the advice of then-City Attorney Martin Weeks, the city council decided against the referendum.

In April 2002, the city council voted to condemn three tracts of privately-owned property needed to complete the street project. A month later, petitions were filed referring that action to a public vote.

In November 2002, voters approved condemnation, with 1,773 yes votes and 1,454 no votes.

On Feb. 5, Circuit Court Judge Glen Eng ruled that the December 2000 city action was referable. Later that month, the city council scheduled Tuesday's vote on Chestnut Street.

Eng suspended the city's activity on condemnation proceedings. "He wanted to hold that hearing after the election," Kozak said.

That hearing originally had been scheduled for April 11. It appears it will be rescheduled to April 23.

"It will simply be the next step in the regular sequence of activities for the condemnation proceedings to continue," he said.

"Both (the city and property owners) will work through the procedure for condemnation action," Melby said.

Kozak said if things go well in the near future, bids could be let in time for the Chestnut project construction to begin this summer.

"Whether or not all of the work would be completed this fall would probably depend on the weather, but I do know that the goal would be to proceed as quickly as we can to hopefully have the road in place by this winter," he said.

Tuesday's positive vote for Chestnut Street, he said, is an indicator that Vermillion citizens want their community to be progressive.

"There is no doubt about my feelings towards this street, because I think of it as much more than four-tenths of one mile of road," Kozak said. "I think of it as opening up the future of Vermillion below the bluff for economic development, and opening up Vermillion for opportunities for the next 75 to 100 years.

"This is a decision that's going to carry itself well into the current century," he said.

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