The Village of Downers Grove is set to vote tonight on the naturalization of Valley View pond. It's not a very big pond, as these things are measured, but to the residents who bought homes in the Valley View subdivision it's an integral part of the quality of the neighborhood.
Area homeowners want for the village to restore the pond to its original state, while village staff has recommended instead a restoration process which will turn the silt-filled pond into essentially a marsh. In briefings, staff has noted the higher expense of dredging the pond, as well as the potential for future necessary dredgings compared to the less expensive option of naturalization.
Residents have complained that if the village had been properly taking care of the village-owned pond, it wouldn't have deteriorated to the current state of weeds and clogged intake pipes. The village took ownership of the property in the aftermath of the failure of the neighborhood developer, and its own records show since then it has not followed village ordinances in regards to maintenance, residents claim.
Staff reports describes the current condition of the pond as dismal.
"Over the years the pond has accumulated a large amount of sediment from more than 400 acres of tributary area. The sediment, a significant waterfowl presence and a lack of substantial vegetation have negatively affected water quality and led to algae blooms, foul odor, and other negative conditions."
This issue comes in front of the village council at a time when villages are consumed with stormwater issues. Topography, infill construction, aging infrastructure and new state regulations have combined to form a perfect storm of budget draining expenses. Stormwater infrastructure may be the new black of municipal issues, but residents see it as a ever expanding money suck.
The Village recently enacted a stormwater utility to help pay for necessary and sometimes long delayed repair and upgrades. Stormwater utilities are also increasingly popular in municipal governance; the urban development wonks love them. It allows for a consistent, dedicated revenue source to pay for stormwater projects. Elected officials like them too, because they can shift that cost and lower property taxes accordingly- or not, as likely, raise them to pay for increased expenses.
And the pond at Valley View collects from "400 acres of tributary area." In other words, the village can use the property to alleviate stormwater issues instead of looking for other ways to fix any problems in that area.
All of which sounds wonderful and thrifty and practical - unless you're one of the residents in the Valley View subdivision. They're concerned about the decrease in property values that will result from the implementation of the Village's plan: homes on ponds are more marketable than homes on a swampy marsh.
The restoration of the Valley View pond is a microcosm of the problems faced by municipal governments today. And unless there is significant media coverage of a large residential outcry, the village council follows almost entirely the recommendations of Village staff.
The rejoinder here is obviously that residents pay for an educated, experienced professional staff to competently manage the day-to-day running of a municipality. Oftentimes, however, senior staff does not live in the community it is charged with managing. It is perhaps too easy for decisions to be based on factors other than what the residents actually want.
Staff turnover can cause significant problems with strategic planning and allocation of resources. Responsibilities slip through the cracks between one Village Manager and the next (and the next) and suddenly there's a pond that needs a lot of work.
Village staff notes in briefings that dredging the pond is significantly more expensive than naturalization, but why should Valley View homeowners have to suffer for past village incompetence? While it is the fiduciary responsibility of the Village Council to approve the lowest bid, it is not always appropriate to choose the cheapest option.
Recent projects, such as the current, seeming neverending construction on Grove Street, are an example of the Village choosing a more expensive option. But on Grove street, the Village is doing really interesting, cutting edge project work....the sort that excites a wonkish staff.
Undoubtedly, staff will submit for yet another municipal award for that project.
There's nothing exciting or award-worthy about the pond at Valley View. It's not a mighty pond. It's not located on the politically active north side of town. If it were Chicago, one might say that the residents in the Valley View subdivision don't have clout.
A primary responsibility of Council members is to listen to the residents and act on their behalf, especially when there is a concern about the direct impact of a village project on residential quality of life. Tonight, residents will learn if their once beautiful pond will be turned into a swamp in the name of progress.
Tip O'Neill famously said that all politics is local. When it's municipal politics, it's even more true; nothing is more local than what you can see out of your kitchen window every day.
And municipal elections are just a few months away.