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Thursday, May 5, 2005 09:34 pm

The return of Hunter Lake

art2047
Don Durbin’s farm was seized by the city of Springfield 30 years ago for a lake that was never built
PHOTO BY TODD SPIVAK

Don Durbin wistfully recalls his early years on the family farm. He stalks through the tall, windswept grasses and points to areas where his children once brushed ponies and petted hogs.

But the century-old farm has lost much of its charm since the city of Springfield seized it nearly 30 years ago.

There are still about a half-dozen wooden structures on the property, some dating back to the early 1900s. But they are all on the verge of collapse.

Giant holes gape in the roof of the cattle shed; it looks as if a bomb has torn through what was once a horse barn.

“The city hasn’t been a good steward,” Durbin says.

Since the early 1970s, the city of Springfield has gobbled up thousands of acres of land from dozens of families for the purpose of creating a second lake. But the lake was never built, and much of the property the city acquired, located southeast of Lake Springfield, was left to languish.

Today the city appears poised to renew its efforts to build a second lake but must contend with at least two opposing factions.

Environmentalists say that at least some of the land, which has been allowed to run wild for decades, should be designated a nature preserve.

“There’s a great opportunity for a high-quality park,” says Bill Crook, a leading member of the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club.

And then there are landowners such as Durbin who quietly hope for the opportunity to repurchase their properties. “We had this ground taken against our will,” Durbin says. “We’d like to have our land back.”

City officials roll out a laundry list of reasons plans to build Hunter Lake — named for the now-deceased city utilities commissioner John Hunter — have stalled for an astounding four decades.

They blame complex permitting processes and disagreements over whether the city even needs an alternative water source.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin has sent mixed signals on the subject.

In 2003, just five months after being elected to his first term, Davlin said: “I don’t think that Hunter Lake is going to happen.”

But last Wednesday, in his “State of the City” address, he hinted otherwise: “We are approaching a final decision on the future of the city’s water supply,” he said. “In the future, Springfield can become a regional water supply for the central-Illinois area.”

Davlin, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, has said that a decision will be made later this year on whether Hunter Lake will at last become a reality.

There are several reasons to believe that the project will move forward.

Todd Renfrow, general manager of Springfield-owned utility City, Water, Light & Power, will soon release the latest in a long series of reports regarding the status of Hunter Lake, also known as Lake II.

In a recent interview with Illinois Times, Renfrow said he was nearing the end of a tedious process to win approval for the project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Lake II remains a very strong option that is supported by the city,” Renfrow says.

Renfrow has refused to provide any details of the study, which may be released to the public later this month.

Consider also the sheer magnitude of a major construction project set to begin this summer in the Hunter Lake area.

Sangamon County officials are overseeing construction of a new $3 million bridge to span Horse Creek, which would empty into Hunter Lake. The bridge will be 310 feet long and 40 feet wide — nearly twice the dimensions of the current one — and rise an additional 30 feet .

“We’re building it above the new lake level” says Jim Marsaglia, a county engineer. “We don’t want to build it and then have to replace it when the new lake is built.”

Formal planning for Hunter Lake began in 1965, a decade after a major drought reduced water levels in Lake Springfield by an alarming 13 feet.

During the last three decades, the city has spent some $4 million on engineering studies and $18 million to acquire 7,100 acres of land needed to build a second lake, according to William Murray, regulatory affairs manager at CWLP.

And the city hasn’t finished its land-buying spree. Murray says the city still must acquire another 660 acres for Hunter Lake.

Through the years, when landowners have resisted, the city has sued, using its power of eminent domain to seize control of the properties. That’s how Durbin lost his 50-acre farm on New City Road back in 1976.

Durbin is among about a dozen original landowners who have since leased their properties back from the city for a monthly fee. He says that he once tried to organize his neighbors to protest the city’s acquisitions. Today his attitude is more defeatist: “They got all the ground; they moved everybody off; they may as well go ahead and build Hunter Lake.”

Anyway, he says, the city has dragged its feet for so long that there’s hardly anyone around left to organize.

“Everyone’s gone,” Durbin says. “I’m one of the few original people left out here.”

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