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Plenty of questions for Mayor Lee at Rock River Open Forum

Sterling mayor asked about rental inspections, riverfront development

STERLING – The proposed rental inspections program being developed by the cities of Rock Falls and Sterling is about safety not aesthetics, Sterling Mayor Skip Lee says.

Lee was at the Sterling Public Library on Thursday evening to field questions as the guest of the Rock River Open Forum.

Shane Celestino of Sterling questioned the constitutionality of such programs.

"The same arguments are made whenever something is regulated for the first time," Lee said. "Multiple legal opinions support what we want to do. Once it is implemented, I think it it will work out fine."

Although he believes the overwhelming majority in both cities are good landlords, Lee feels that the program is needed to untie the hands of city officials in certain cases where public safety is compromised.

"Code enforcement pretty much works on a complaint basis now," Lee said. "We can issue citations for outdoor things, but the only way you can get inside is with a tenant complaint or a warrant."

It can be particularly difficult if a property is in what Lee calls "foreclosure purgatory" or there are out-of-town owners.

The fact that the cities are working together on the program should make it run more efficiently, Lee said.

"[Rock Falls building inspector] Mark Searing has worked with building codes and landlords for a long time," Lee said. "Will there be gliches and tweaks? Yes, but the two cities together will have more resources to work on it."

The mayor also was asked about progress on the riverfront development. He said the first phase has focused on health, safety and infrastructure. That involves getting the Environmental Protection Agency's stamp of approval – no further remediation.

A $2.2 million state EPA grant was secured for a greenspace project along the riverfront.

The city is acquiring the former National Manufacturing property. The donation agreement calls for Stanley to assume responsibility for cleaning up any underground contaminants associated with the planned demolition of buildings. The city would be liable for above-ground contaminants such as asbestos and lead paint that would likely have to be dealt with during the renovation process.

The city has said it plans to take down 6 of the 10 buildings included in the agreement. The estimated demolition cost would be $1.5 million to $1.7 million.

The Lawrence Brothers property is a bit of a question mark, the mayor said.

"We're still assessing what we have with that building," Lee said. "That area is more open, so keeping people out has been a problem."

Several people at the meeting were in agreement with the mayor's belief in the untapped potential of Lawrence Park. Building up and securing the river banks in that area has been a problem, and the shallow water limits its recreational use.

John Espinoza, a Whiteside County Board member, said the old buildings slated for demolition could be a tool in solving that problem.

"When we're tearing up concrete from the plant and the Rock Falls Limestone Building, we could use the materials to build up the banks," Espinoza said. "Milwaukee did something similar along their riverfront. We can build it up and use the rock to protect it."

Development doesn't come cheap, the mayor reminds the group.

"About $60 million is needed just on our side for riverfront development," Lee said. "The reality it that the state of Illinois, and the cities of Sterling and Rock Falls are not infinite pots of money."

Several people attended to voice their interest in planting and harvesting community gardens.

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