Hoping for the Best
Subdividing Lake Springfield's shorelands
March 23, 1979
Another plea to protect Lake Springfield. Plans to protect the lake from sedimentation date back to 1952 but the recommended protections of the lake's backwaters never materialized. There were suburban subdivisions to build and houses to sell and crop subsidies to qualify for, and such land uses now crowd this part of the lake mere yards away.
Eight miles southwest of Springfield, just a few dozen yards west of Glasser Bridge, Sugar Creek slows to a crawl after a journey of as many miles and settles tiredly into a broad pond that is the southernmost extremity of Lake Springfield. A county road skirts the western shore of the pond, and on the other side of that is a backyard-sized backwater. It looks as if it might have been the mouth of a small stream that used to run into Sugar Creek; now, it forms a sylvan amphitheater whose backdrop is the rows of trees that separate it from the farmland that stretches out invisibly behind them. It may have aspired to the title “pond” at some point in its past, but now it is just a wet spot on the landscape, choked with grasses and reeds, a pond only in the spring when the water is high.
Remote as it is, this backwater belongs to the City of Springfield. It is part of the 4,300 acres of land the city bought in the 1930s to buffer its new reservoir. Eight years ago, I spent an afternoon with a posse of teenagers from The Learning Community riding out in pursuit of Nature. It was spring, and the flooded backwater verified by the variety and abundance of its insect and animal tenants the biologists’ claim that freshwater ponds in the spring harbor more life than any field, stream, or forest. An hour or two of industrious if haphazard exploration netted several catches: a DeKay snake (which, I am ashamed to say, was carted back to the school); a dog’s skull; a jarful of frogs’ eggs; the pale, thin ghosts left behind when crayfish molt and shed their brittle, translucent exoskeletons.
I returned to the backwater last week. It was remarkably unchanged—a little more overgrown as sediment slowly re-exerts its claim on the land lost to the lake when it was first flooded, a few more beer cans left in the grass, a few more McDonald’s wrappers. As I stood there a muskrat swam serenely out from its burrow on the bank on the lake side of the roadway until my shadow crossed his path when he crash-dived into the murk. Traffic whizzed by to and from Chatham and the interstate not fifty steps behind me, but this spot retained the sense of isolation and indifference that one always finds in a wildish place.
And then I looked up. Looming behind the trees, dark and featureless against a bright afternoon sky, were the brand-new houses of the Ivy Glen subdivision, squatting uninvited and forbidding on its doorstep.
Ivy Glen is part of the village of Chatham, though not actually in it; Chatham has flung out its nets so far that its boundaries now reach all the way to the Sugar Creek, even though the creek runs several miles east of the village proper. Next to Ivy Glen is the Glenwood Park subdivision, another typical suburban excrescence, like Ivy Glen built on land that was farmland just two or three years ago.
The usual unhappy environmental consequences will no doubt attend these developments. Their construction left hillsides exposed to weather, for instance, and topsoil from the wounds bled into the lake. Lawn fertilizer, snow-melting chemicals, septic tank effluent—when these houses were built there was no sewer line within a dozen miles—will wash into lake waters. Children will roam the adjoining woods with BB guns and pocketknives, dogs and cats will make life miserable for woodland species living within their reach. Increased human traffic will add to the litter and the casual vandalism that are urbanization’s footprints on the landscape. The woods here survived for four decades, but no sensible person would predict that they will last four decades more.
The City of Springfield owns some 2,450 acres of “unimproved” land along Lake Springfield’s fifty-seven-mile shoreline. Most of it borders the two creek arms. Along with the Springfield Park District’s Carpenter and Gurgens parks, these acres constitute the only sizable public holdings of such land left in the paved and plowed expanse of Sangamon County. (The county government has been characteristically negligent in this area, and boasts not so much as a square foot of park, forest preserve or conservation area.)
Despite their importance, virtually the only official voice raised in their defense in recent years belongs to Jim Henneberry, Springfield’s utilities commissioner, whose department is responsible for the maintenance of the lake and its environs. It’s a responsibility some of his recent predecessors haven’t taken so seriously; parts of the wildlife sanctuary were leased to private clubs, city land along Stevenson Drive was leased to businesses catering to the tourists, and some shoreline property was similarly leased for private homes.
Last summer Henneberry blocked a plan by Chatham to route a leg of that village’s new sewer system (a system, incidentally, which is bound to spur more development in the area) through city shoreline land near Glasser Bridge. As long as two years ago, Henneberry told an IT reporter, “When I was environmental coordinator for the lake I recommended that this (unimproved shoreline) be dedicated for public use in perpetuity, but the city council hasn’t done anything about it. There are enormous pressures out there to build . . . Hopefully in the near future we are going to put this before the council.”
But the matter has never been put before the council. Part of the problem is that dedication apparently requires that the city surrender at least some control over its land, something a jealous city council is not likely to do. But a proposal by attorney William Hanley to establish a more flexible “conservation right” over the city holdings as allowed under a recent Illinois law was never acted upon. There is no organized shorelands lobby, and such support as they occasionally receive—from the Lake Shore Improvement Association, for example—is discounted at city hall because so many of the pleaders are not city residents.
However, some official attention is being paid to the problem. Henneberry’s department recently contracted the regional planning commission to study the impact of development on the lake’s watershed, with the ultimate aim being the drafting of recommendations to insure a continued safe and plentiful water supply for the city. One of the questions planners hope to answer in that study will be the fate of the shorelands. It is too early to say what steps may be recommended when the report is issued, perhaps by early summer. In the meantime, there are still “for sale” signs on vacant lots at Glenwood Park, and the pretentious landscaped boulevard that leads into Ivy Glen attests to the developer’s ambitions there. One waits, and hopes for the best. ●