Heated words heard at Chestnut meeting

Heated words heard at Chestnut meeting Mayor Roger Kozak, in the foreground, listens as citizens give their input about the Chestnut Street project at public hearing Monday night. Voters will decide April 8 whether the city should pursue the proposal that was approved in December 2000. by David Lias Mayor Roger Kozak had barely finished giving a presentation on why the city of Vermillion wants to improve Chestnut Street when angry words began to fly.

In fact, a public hearing Monday at the William J. Radigan Fire Station grew so heated that the mayor finally had to urge people not to interrupt each other.

Kozak said the goals of the Chestnut Street project are to improve the street, from University to Dakota streets, as a truck route. This, he said, would enhance Vermillion below the bluff for existing and future industrial and residential development.

The Vermillion City Council agreed to proceed with plans to improve the street in December 2000. Petitions were filed soon after that in an attempt to refer the issue to a public vote.

Early in 2001, however, City Attorney Martin Weeks advised the city council that, in his opinion, the action taken by the aldermen was administrative, not legislative, in nature and couldn't be brought to a public vote.

In last November's general election, Vermillion citizens voted in favor of allowing the city to proceed with condemnation proceedings to obtain the necessary private property needed to complete the project.

Last February, a judge ruled that the city's December 2000 action was legislative, and the issue could be referred.

The street would be improved with two 12-foot wide traffic lanes, a retaining wall on the south side, curb and gutter to reduce erosion, street lights and a guard rail.

Kozak stated that the project will help reduce the possibility of the bluff sliding above the street. There will be minor cutting on the far northwest side of Chestnut to straighten the road, he said. Fill will be used on the north side to further stabilize the bluff.

Curb, gutter, and storm water management will also assist in stabilization by moving water away from the area, Kozak said.

The main goal of the project, the mayor said, is to move truck and bus traffic off of Dakota and University Streets and reduce the current traffic going through downtown and in front of Jolley Elementary School.

Engineers have projected that by 2013, the average daily traffic count on Chestnut Street will be approximately 800 vehicles.

Kozak noted that for more than a decade, various mayors and city council members in Vermillion have explored alternative designs for improving Chestnut Street. "Today's approved plan was deemed the most feasible and cost effective," he said. "The constraints caused by the bluff and railroad have always and continue to prohibit other cost effective options."

Lynette Melby, who with her husband, Neil, owns property along Chestnut Street, said they have been told two different things about erosion of the bluff. She distributed photos of what appeared to be a small amount of erosion on a bluff.

"This is the disaster that is being allowed to continue when the city widened University Street. You weren't there the day the engineer came out and surveyed the damage. He said cutting into the toe of the bluff caused it," Melby said.

City Manager Jim Patrick told Melby that the engineer said that improvements on Chestnut Street would not cause any slippage on the bluff because of the way it would be constructed.

Erosion became an issue of constant disagreement between Melby and Patrick. Kozak asked for the sharp exchanges to end, and for people to omit name-calling and personal accusations in their comments.

"I ask that we all try to stick to the purpose of the session tonight, and that's to discuss the design," Kozak said.

Opponents of the current design said the city should seek less expensive alternatives. They also said improving the street would make it more dangerous because motorists would speed on the paved surface.

Former alderman Frank Slagle, who said he was attending the hearing neither as a proponent nor opponent of the project, said the city should guarantee the improvement will cause no erosion.

"You're saying there's no risk, but you don't want to guarantee (it won't happen)," he said. "To me, that's speaking out of both sides of your mouth. You're saying there's no risk, but you don't want to guarantee. If you don't want to guarantee, is it because there's more risk than you care to admit?"

"As a taxpayer, I guess would have a problem issuing that kind of guarantee to the property owners on the bluff," said Kevin Myron, "because who is to say that if nothing happens, that it's not going to erode?"

Myron, co-owner of Vermillion Fertilizer and Grain located in lower Vermillion, said the nature of truck traffic to his business has changed dramatically in recent years.

"We used to have tractors pulling wagons, going 15 to 20 miles per hour," he said. "Now, the majority unit that is used is a semi, which weighs 80,000 pounds and travels up to speeds of 65-70 miles per hour."

The railroad has also changed dramatically, he said. The tracks have been upgraded, the cars are heavier, and the trains travel faster.

"That's all occurring at the bottom of that bluff," Myron said. "I think those types of things make an improvement of that bluff more necessary. My recollection of what the engineers said at different meetings is that the project will stabilize the bluff."

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