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Rock Falls steps up canal annexation efforts

New ad hoc committee to meet Feb. 13

ROCK FALLS – A committee has been formed to better coordinate the city’s recreational development efforts and expedite the possible annexation of 2.2 miles of the canal into the city.

The Hennepin Canal-Trails Committee will meet for the first time Feb. 13. One of its most important jobs will be to explore all angles of annexing the part of the canal that extends through the city, from the Arduini boat ramp to the state Route 40 bridge outside the city.

The purpose of the new committee is to bring together separate bodies that had been working on closely related recreational projects, primarily the canal and a developing trail and bike path system.

“Over the years, we had established various ad hoc committees for everything from the canal and bike path to signage and lighting,” Mayor Bill Wescott said. “They all worked hard, but we think we’ll be better served bringing all those areas under one umbrella.”

The committee is expected to dive right into the canal annexation work at its first meeting, Wescott said. Members will get survey results and other information ready for presentation at the City Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in council chambers.

The survey was sent via residents’ utility bills. In addition to asking questions, the survey solicited public comments.

The annexation of the canal was a priority of former Mayor David Blanton. Although the land runs through the city, it is not city property; it belongs to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

More than a decade of draconian state budget cuts have made these types of annexations appealing to both the municipalities involved and IDNR. From 2002 to 2013, the agency has seen its general funding drop from $107 million to $45 million. Personnel has been halved, leaving a maintenance backlog of nearly $1 billion.

Dave Hahne, superintendent of Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park, and his staff are responsible for maintenance of the Rock Falls canal area from their home base in Sheffield.

“We have nine people in our office, and seven work in maintenance,” Hahne said. “People retire and they aren’t replaced. It’s a big area to cover.”

His office covers 96 miles of the main canal area, an additional 5 miles in Milan, and three other satellite areas. The annexation by Rock Falls would allow the city to take on some of the simpler maintenance chores.

Hahne sees annexation as potentially being mutually beneficial to the city and IDNR.

“This would allow us to work together to achieve our goal, which is for the state and city to get a much better product out there,” Hahne said.

Both IDNR and the Rock River Development Authority have a representative on the new committee, whose chairman will be Jim Schuneman.

Before the land could be brought into the city, the entities would have to draw up a lease agreement that Wescott says has not yet been prepared. The document would, among other things, spell out the division of maintenance responsibilities.

With a lease agreement in hand, the city could proceed with annexation. That would include engineering work for drawings, a public hearing, and notification to neighbors within 250 feet of the property.

“The city would draw up the annexation agreement in ordinance fashion, and it would be voted on by the council after a second reading,” Wescott said.

In addition to the added manpower for maintenance, other advantages cited by the city include bringing the area into the jurisdiction of Rock Falls police, giving the city authority to determine use policy and make upgrades, and providing grant opportunities for feeder canal projects.

The area is now under the policing jurisdiction of the Whiteside County sheriff. Rock Falls Police are often asked to respond anyway until the sheriff’s department can get there, Wescott said. The area could be included in the city’s regular police patrols.

The obvious disadvantage is cost, and the city’s inability, up to this point, to put a price tag on taking control of the area has been a stumbling block.

“The costs are the biggest concern,” Wescott said. “There are no new taxes or revenue from this to put in.”

Researching the cost is a work in progress, although numbers in the $100,000 to $200,000 a year range have been tossed around. The cost to the city would also be documented in the lease agreement.

Wescott is optimistic that costs could be held in check, largely because of commitments from several local volunteer groups.

“We plan to have a majority of the work done by volunteers,” he said. “It’s also possible that there won’t be any lease cost, but that’s something we haven’t discussed with IDNR yet. There are still a lot of questions to be answered.” 

Survey results

Hennepin Canal annexation survey results will be discussed at the next Rock Falls Committee of the Whole meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in the council chambers.

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