McHenry County 2030 Plan: Planning For Our Future Featured

01 June 2010
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Published in Places
As McHenry County plans for vast growth, the 2030 Comprehensive Plan addresses a variety of issues aiming to strike a balance between economic development and protecting natural resources.

McHenry County’s recently completed 2030 Comprehensive Plan is a three-and-a-half-year effort by an independent Regional Planning Commission made up of a diverse segment of stakeholders: from the strongest pro-development members to the strongest pro-conservation members.   

Approved April 21, 2010 by a vote of 19-3, the land-use plan still has some contenders who argue that it does not have enough protection for agricultural land and groundwater. Enthusiasts, however, believe the plan to be a practical compromise.      

The 2030 plan addresses issues that will accommodate a forecasted population increase in a way that is compatible both with economic development and with respect to the preservation of agriculture, open space, quality of life, natural resources and water resources.

Projecting Vast Growth     
People move to (and remain in) McHenry County to connect with a heritage associated with a small-town community. With an abundance of agriculture and open space, the land flaunts the virtues of natural resources and rolling topography. This makes our county unique compared to any others in northeastern Illinois.

The increase of the region’s population as a whole is going to be 25 percent greater in 2030 than it is now, according to Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) demographics. From 1970 to 2000, the total population of the northeastern Illinois seven-county area only grew seven percent but McHenry County more than doubled. Based on that, our county may be seeing tremendous growth; now there is a plan to accommodate those projections.

Land Use, Infrastructure and Population      
The 2030 plan supports the efforts to consume less land and create fewer economic and environmental impacts on a per-capita basis while encouraging communities to maintain their own character. The planners tried to protect against, to the greatest extent possible, any loss of natural resources, farmland and water resources. They also incorporated progressive planning principles like transit-oriented development and improved public transit. The planners accepted feedback from the public and made changes along the way because of this input. The plan is better now after taking the input into consideration. The county board listened and environmental protection issues were addressed.      

That said, agriculture and farming are still a way of life for many and could continue to be a long-term, viable land use. The 2030 planning commission processed how to preserve all the splendor that McHenry County has to offer with the looming growth of the current population of 180,000 to the projected forecast of roughly 316,000 to 495,000 by 2030.

Consideration was given to pro-development and pro-environment. Everyone had a voice. Currently, more than half of the county’s workers leave to find work, which is not desirable or sustainable economically. Think of the mileage, traffic and the tax differential. McHenry County currently doesn’t have enough prime employment to help support the tax base.        

The 2030 Plan recognizes that McHenry County needs to find room to accommodate the looming economic development and attract primary jobs to our bucolic, livable county.  McHenry County is not only the kind of place where people want to relocate new facilities or small businesses, but it is the kind of place in which families enjoy living.     

Vision With Principles  
Those on the Regional Planning Commission believe that this is not a plan for unwieldy development. They see it as a vision with a set of principles and policies for guiding development in the municipalities, especially for those municipalities that don’t have the planning staff or resources. 

Not every municipality and environmental agency is wholly buying into every one of the plan’s concepts, however, but most respect the framework for how the municipalities can develop well. Input was garnered from many government councils and agencies. Some wanted the county to adhere to the principle of compact contiguous development – maximizing the amount of development that will occur in the vicinity of municipalities.  Others wanted no development at all.      

The planners utilized technology for assessments. They reviewed mapping layers to project sensitive areas in future land use. To best adhere to healthy growth, the county needs to take a role in pulling together all the governmental agencies in the county – with one of the leaders being McHenry County Conservation District – in order to maintain the county’s interconnected, greenway open spaces.       

Two Extremes     
One option is uncontrolled growth where municipalities do their own thing, minimize barriers to developments and take anything they can get, including strip malls. There wouldn’t be a strategic vision about what separates our county from others in regard to its allure. The second option is the creation of and adherence to a broader vision where municipalities have higher standards for conservation development and sustainability. This vision would be based on raising standards in order to attract the best businesses and residents while at the same time promoting the economic advantages of working in the county.        

The county will be developed; but it needs to be accomplished in a more sustainable way, with a more efficient use of existing infrastructure to preserve large swaths of land and contiguous areas of farmland and open spaces.     

Individual county residents can and should question the viability of developmental progress. Is there adequate accessibility and provisions to accommodate infrastructure in order to make the new development economically viable? In other words, will it end up generating enough taxes to pay for itself? The 2030 plan can help communities defend difficult land-use decisions, providing a considerate set of reference points. Don’t be reluctant to communicate to elected officials regarding accountability.

Ongoing Benchmarks Required      
It’s important to note that the county has no zoning or building authority within municipal boundaries. So for many areas the plan is merely a suggestion of ideas for a visionary effect, not a law. Also, it’s not a plan for a date but rather for a projected population. If, for example, McHenry County reaches the projected population in 2015,  a new plan would be needed. If the county doesn’t reach it until 2050 then there is a plan in place until 2050. This is a vision of where new residents will live. State and federal governments have the final word. The 2030 plan is a set of guidelines for the county and its 30 municipalities and 17 townships.     

Through the years there will be incremental benchmarks, perhaps a revisitation of the plan on a regular basis, minimally at a five-year frequency.         

The planners aimed to preserve as much open space as possible, calling for McHenry County Conservation District to triple its acreage size over the next 20 years, to grow from about five to 15 percent. We have in McHenry County some of the most sensitive wetlands and habitats for endangered species in northern Illinois. These areas need to be preserved.      

There also seems to be agreement from all stakeholders that if the county doesn’t have proper water management, we will have water problems in the future. The plan requires use of the overlay of the Sensitive Aquifer Recharge Areas (SARA) map on every new development as part of the approval process. This protects the areas where water enters the aquifers, and since water recharge is our lifeblood, this will help ensure future water sources for generations.       

The plan achieves a balance between residential development, environmental concerns and municipal economics. Growing communities in a smart way can be healthy for our land as well as economically smart for our communities. The fact is that nobody is totally happy with the entire proposal. There are people in the development community who care about wetlands and natural and historical preservation. Conversely, there are people in the environmental community who would have liked less development.        

The planning commission looked at historical and natural area resources and assessed the essential ones to preserve while trying to keep McHenry County thriving economically.   

Regional Continuity       
Generally, the 2030 plan addresses many of the same issues that the CMAP has in its Go To 2040 plan in regard to maintaining the character of communities, protection of open spaces and transportation.      

We are not only land stewards of our county but of our region. McHenry County’s developers, residents, and county and municipal administrators implement projects at a local level that strongly affect neighboring counties.       

A growing community is a thriving community; with it will come developments and the creation of new jobs and businesses. The 2030 plan addresses smart growth and how it reaches beyond our county’s borders. We are an economic region tied into neighboring counties for services, jobs and education. The planners understood this and gauged the county’s preparations accordingly.     

Just because the 2030 plan is complete doesn’t mean McHenry County residents should sit back and wait to see how it unfolds over the next 20 years. Stay engaged; we have a voice. As developments happen around us, take responsibility and understand how they impact our own communities and whether the directions continue to make sense.  

Sidebar: Excerpted Goals and Objectives of the McHenry County 2030 Plan
1. Preserve the most productive farmland as a source for viable agricultural activities that enhance the county’s economy and provide rural character.
2.  Protect the most productive agricultural lands.
3.  Encourage best management practices to reduce potential negative impacts to natural resources.
4.  Recognize the cultural, social, recreational, conservation, economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits provided by agricultural use.
5.  Promote and encourage diversified, affordable and attainable housing that meets the needs of all of the citizens. If you work here, you should be able to live here.
6.  Promote development, redevelopment, infill development, conservation, environmental protection and public improvements that support the highest quality of life in existing and future communities. The owner of property today must be a responsible steward of the land for future generations.
7.  Promote and encourage the appropriate use of design principles as an alternative to conventional suburban sprawl. The essence of neighborhood cohesiveness should be emphasized and encouraged.
8.  Promote growth that supports overall long-term financial health, and best utilization of existing and future facilities for all school districts. Improved educational opportunities should be a result of future growth.
9.  Promote the conservation and protection of historically significant structures and sites in both the urban and rural setting. If we don’t know where we came from, we cannot expect to know where we are going.
10.  Provide adequate transportation facilities and supporting infrastructure in order to retain and attract new businesses to help broaden the county’s economic base.
11.  Encourage the expansion of institutions of higher learning to enhance workforce skills to help broaden the county’s economic base.
12.  Identify the county in terms of meaningful business zones and recognize key characteristics of each zone.
13. Recognize ag-tourism and alternate agriculture as viable economic tools.
14.  Protect productive and valuable aggregate resources ensuring their availability for future generations.
15.  Development in McHenry County shall be served with adequate infrastructure, including wastewater treatment, potable water, storm water control and management systems, roads, waste management and other utilities.
16.  Promote and ensure that sufficient roadway systems exist to serve the needs within the county.
17.  Encourage and foster the expansion and integration of existing transportation systems for travel to points outside of the county.
18.  Promote and encourage the development of appropriate and adequate facilities (trails, bike paths, etc.) for the use of pedestrian and non-motor traffic for safety, convenience and recreational purposes.
19.  Promote and provide for adequate access to current technological and communications services for all County citizens.
20.  Encourage and promote individual community identities.
21.  Encourage the stewardship of the land – lead by example.
22.  Make wise land use decisions that recognize the qualities of natural resources and the environment that protect environmentally sensitive areas, and provide aesthetically pleasing places.
23.  Promote the retention and management of open space for recreation, wildlife habitat and conservation.
24.  Promote regional bikeway-trail systems that enhance recreational opportunities while providing greenways between communities and important open space resources.
25.  Promote land uses that maintain the integrity of local and regional natural systems; preserve natural features; minimize the impact on land, water, energy, and other natural resources; and minimize air, noise and light pollution.
26.  Preserve and replenish the quality and quantity of existing groundwater resources.
27.  Preserve the capacity of groundwater systems to supply projected drinking and irrigation water needs and to provide adequate flows to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems.
28.  Preserve and enhance the chemical, physical, biological and hydrologic integrity of streams, lakes and wetlands.
29.  Protect and enhance the capacity of streams and lakes to meet recreational demands for fishing, swimming and boating.
30.  Prevent increases in flooding and flood damages and associated channel erosion related to increased storm water runoff.

Thank you to the following for their input: Emily Berendt, Alliance for Land, Agriculture and Water; Randy Blankenhorn, executive director, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning;   Dennis Dreher, vice chairman, McHenry County Regional Planning Commissioners; Charles Eldredge, chairman, McHenry County Regional Planning Commissioners; Lisa Haderlein, executive director, The Land Conservancy of McHenry County; and Tina Hill, McHenry County Board Member