By Gregory Trotter, Chicago Tribune reporter
12:36 PM EDT, June 25, 2013
Residents of the unincorporated Woodley Road neighborhood are considering annexing to Winnetka — which could address some of their flooding problems.
The Woodley Road neighborhood, which sits near the border of Winnetka and Wilmette, is in unincorporated Cook County. Its narrow and curvy road, sprawling properties and dense tree growth evoke a distinct feeling of rural privacy. One problem: There's no storm sewer to drain off water after a heavy rain.
The idea of annexation has been bandied about before. But as Winnetka's $34.5 million Willow Road tunnel project moves forward, Woodley Road residents have a window of opportunity to hop aboard. Both village officials and homeowners association representatives say it could provide stormwater protection for Woodley residents and millions of dollars in new assessed value for the village.
"It's quite a big investment (Winnetka) is making," said Stephen Baine, president of the Woodley Road Association. "It's a one-time opportunity to assess whether we should join them."
A new $5 million storm sewer could alleviate flooding along Woodley Road and connect to the Willow Road tunnel, said Hal Francke, an attorney who lives on Woodley Road, citing a plan done by a private engineering firm. But it remains to be seen who would pay for that sewer, and who will own and maintain it.
At this point, there are far more questions than answers on whether annexation will work for both parties.
Woodley residents would pay more in village property taxes and stormwater fees, but perhaps less for other services currently contracted out, like plowing and waste removal.
The village would see a significant increase in assessed value. The total equalized assessed value of the Woodley Road area is $104.7 million, as of 2011, Francke said. But Winnetka officials will also need to consider the potential costs of increases to public services for some 140 new homes.
Both sides will analyze the cost-benefit as negotiations progress. A decision on whether to move forward, and an agreement on the details, must be reached within the next eight to 12 months, said Winnetka Village Manager Rob Bahan.
"At the end of the day, it always comes down to: What does it cost? And how much do I get in return?" Bahan said. "The discussions so far have been positive and I believe both sides see a benefit."
It's possible that having more people pay into the stormwater system will reduce the average stormwater utility fee per person, Bahan said, but it's too early to know the real impact.
Francke is chairman of a task force appointed by the Woodley Road Association to study the annexation issue.
Driving through the neighborhood during a recent interview, he pointed out the source of Woodley Road's flooding problems. There are no sewers, no gutters, no ditches — in other words, there's nowhere for the water to go.
"When it rains, it just goes wherever it can," Francke said.
The Woodley Road Association decided to reexamine the possibility of annexation in the fall of 2011, he said. That came on the heels of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's call for unincorporated areas in Cook County to annex in order to reduce the fiscal burden on the county.
But the proposed Willow Road tunnel is the primary motivation. Intended to address flood in five of the village's drainage areas, the tunnel will divert stormwater east into Lake Michigan through an 8-foot diameter pipe. Village officials have said the tunnel could handle the additional stormwater from Woodley Road with no major changes.
Woodley Road's new sewer would run east on Hill Road, then north on Birch Street, before connecting to the tunnel.
So far, Francke said, most Woodley Road residents have expressed interest in learning more about the annexation's cost and what it could mean for the flooding problems.
"You're never going to get 100 percent in favor of annexing. …We're talking about a complicated set of issues," Francke said.
In order to annex to the village, a property has to be contiguous to the village or other property annexing, he said. It's not yet clear what could happen if some residents are in favor, but others can't be convinced.
Woodley Road residents get their water from Winnetka at a higher rate. Village residents pay about $31 per 1,000 cubic feet, but Woodley residents pay about $55 per 1,000 cubic feet, said Ed McKee, Winnetka's finance director.
An average Winnetka resident pays about $827 a year for water, McKee said, but most homes on Woodley pay double or triple that because of the size of the lots and the increased rates.
Woodley homeowners also pay about $900 a year for contracted police response from the village, McKee said, though they are primarily covered by the Cook County Sheriff's Office. Though they would no longer pay that after annexation, they would pay village property taxes.
"It's so early, I don't have a sense of what those numbers might be," McKee said, when asked what the average tax bill would look like.
Early estimates conducted by the Woodley Road Association indicate residents would pay an average of $2,000 more per year after annexing, Francke said, an annual net cost that includes property taxes, village stickers and licenses, and reductions in water and emergence response costs. But cost will vary depending on factors like assessed value and water consumption.
That estimate does not include the stormwater utility fee intended to pay off the $41.1 million stormwater program. The average Winnetka property owner will pay about $356 per "equivalent runoff unit," a measurement of 3,400 square feet of impervious surface area, according to village projections.
Jay Kirby, a Woodley Road resident and retired business executive, said he was neutral on the idea but could support it "if the cost isn't significant and the stormwater protection is significant and real and made more doable by annexation."
Down the street, Mary W. Green said she could support the plan if it reduced the flooding, which has grown worse since she moved into the neighborhood in 2001. Though her driveway collects water in a storm, Green said her neighbors get it much worse.
Having recently celebrated her 90th birthday, Green said she wasn't going to get too excited about flooding relief or annexation.
"I'll just take it as a benefit if it comes along," she said.
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