WILMINGTON, Ill. — These days, the coffee shops frequented by farmers in Will County are more likely to be filled with talk of planes, trucks and asphalt than with crop prices and weather forecasts.

Two proposed massive transportation projects — the Illiana Expressway and the South Suburban Airport — would remove thousands of acres of Will County farmland from production and pave over parts of farms or entire farms, as well as homes and businesses.

The county has become a poster child for the increasing battles that pit infrastructure and development projects against farmers and their farms.

Farmers such as Bruce Hamann and his daughter-in-law, Virginia Hamann, have spent as much time giving statements and testimony for the public record in recent months as they have on their farms.

“With the Illiana project, we will be removing 22.3 (million) to 44.6 million boxes of cornflakes per year. There’s not a magical machine in the backroom that makes our food,” Virginia Hamann said as part of her public testimony recently in Wilmington.

“As of right now, they’re saying over one-third of the Centennial Farms in Will County will be destroyed by this road. Communities will be severed, and 3,300 to 6,600 acres of prime Midwest farmland that produces our food. If you don’t know what an acre means — every bushel of corn produces 38 boxes of cornflakes,” she said.

Bruce Hamann farms with his son, Brian, Virginia’s husband. They raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and operate a 120-head dairy, one of fewer than a dozen still operating in Will County.

Bruce Hamann also is the Will Township road commissioner. He looks at the project through the eyes of a farmer and a road commissioner.

“Meeting with IDOT people last week, there’s a real concern about drainage in the farm community,” Hamann said at a Feb. 19 public hearing in Wilmington.

“From the highway commissioner standpoint, this is nothing but increased costs to us to maintain roads in the community. I read about all this growth and the $70 million in tax revenues. I can’t get any answer out of any of them if that is going to be shared with the local communities. I really wonder who is going to see the $70 million,” he said at the hearing to cheers and applause from the more than 100 people who attended to give public testimony, primarily opposed to the project.

Public Comment Ends

The public comment period for the Illiana opened on Jan. 24 and closed on March 10. The Illiana Corridor Project includes participants from the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“We are reviewing the comments and will respond to them in a final statement that we anticipate having finalized at the end of May. In addition to the environmental work, we are currently working with four developer teams on a request for proposals,” said Guy Tridgell, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Tridgell said some 4,300 acres will be needed for the Illiana tollway. The projects pit existing farming and agriculture in the county against projections of jobs and economic development.

The Illiana Project is slated to create some 13,000 short-term construction jobs and “thousands of long-term jobs,” Illiana Project information claims. Communications from the Illiana Project tout the $70 million tax revenue figure and a long-term tax revenue figure of $340 million.

The South Suburban Airport is projected to create 11,000 construction jobs and 14,000 more jobs when the airport is operational.

The Illinois Farm Bureau has formally opposed the Illiana project, as well as a quick-take option that would allow the state to fast-track any land condemnation process, if negotiations fail with landowners in the path of the toll road.

The project took a step forward on March 17, when it was announced that U.S. Department of Transportation declared the project eligible for a low-cost federal loan. That loan could finance up to a third of the cost of construction.

“That process will produce a financing plan to design, build and operate the road. We anticipate that process coming to conclusion later this year with no deadline for that,” Tridgell said of the request for proposals.

The Illiana Expressway would be built and operated through a P3, a public-private partnership. The roadway is a total of 48.6 miles in length, running from Interstate 55 near Wilmington in Will County and ending at Interstate 65 near Cedar Lake, Ind.

The project is slated to cost some $1.5 billion, including projected costs for land acquisition. Tridgell said no land has been acquired for the Illiana. Construction is slated to start in the spring of 2015.

“Taking away our farmland and the jobs in the agricultural community for your temporary construction jobs, I find that really disgusting. I believe we have enough infrastructure in place today that’s crumbling apart,” Judy Ogalla said at the hearing.

She also voiced concerns that response times for emergency services will be longer due to road closures for the tollway, and she echoed Bruce Hamann’s worry about potential impacts on drainage.

“The drainage off this road will really impact communities. Right now, we all have field tiles. When those tiles are gone or disrupted, what’s going to happen is it’s going to flood,” Ogalla said.

She said the disrupted and increased water flow could impact residential wells and septic systems.

In Airport Footprint

Ogalla has experience dealing with infrastructure issues and the potential impact to Will County farmland. The 160-acre family farm where she and her husband live and farm would be consumed by the footprint of the proposed South Suburban Airport.

Ogalla has been the vice president for the last 12 years of STAND, Shut This Airport Nightmare Down, a 5,000-member grassroots group that has organized opposition to the airport.

Plans for a third major airport in the Chicagoland area gained altitude in recent decades. The state began purchasing property for the airport in 2001 and to date has acquired 3,304 acres at a cost of $47,888,945. The state needs some 6,000 acres for the initial construction.

Farmers and rural landowners are not alone in their opposition to these projects. Lawsuits have been filed to stop the Illiana project, and their non-farming neighbors have joined the fights against both projects.

“The whole project rests on the viability of the Peotone airport, which to this day has never got an interested airline. Without an airline, you have no real airport, so on the face of it, it’s a ridiculous project because not only is Peotone a poorly sited airport, too far south from where the actual people live, but the Illiana skirts south of that. There are other transportation projects that are more important,” testified Anthony Rayson, a Monee resident who also is a member of STAND.

“The preferred alternative would pave over thousands of acres of farmland, land that the people here have depended on and whose livelihoods would forever be impacted by the roads. As farms and families are relocated, we must ask ourselves — at what cost?” Colleen Smith, clean water organizer for the Sierra Club, asked at the Illiana hearing.

In July 2013, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that gives permission for the state to enter into public/private partnerships for the development, construction and operation of the airport. The governor’s fiscal year 2014 budget included the remaining $71 million needed to complete land acquisition for the inaugural footprint.

Ogalla is a first-term Will County Board member, and she said the priority that the state has placed on farming, agriculture and farm families needs to change when those interests come up against projects such as the Illiana Expressway and the South Suburban Airport.

“What they’re doing is they’re saying other peoples’ businesses and their jobs and their livelihoods are more important than that of a farmer. What gets me is the farmer is the one who is continually hit for all these projects that politicians dream up. They get their unions behind them, and they’re all excited. But why should the farmer continually get hit? Why is the agriculture business not as important as everybody else’s business?” she said.

“I don’t think much of this road coming through here,” said Louis Rodawald, a farmer in Florence Township in Will County. “I think it’s really sad when it’s all politics and behind this; they make all the money and we get shoved out, that’s about all I got to say.”