DECATUR — The estimate to turn 109 acres near Harristown into a sprawling recycling facility run by Macon County has increased by more than a third since being announced in April.
County officials initially said the “sustainability campus” planned in the 1100 block of North Wyckles Road on Decatur’s west side would cost $4.5 million to build, with philanthropist Howard Buffett providing $1.2 million to buy the land.
Plans for the site, which stretches to West Grand Avenue, call for a drive-thru recycling center and offices for the county's Environmental Management Department, plus possibilities of a compost center, small solar farm and community gardens.
The estimate for the project today is $7.5 million. Environmental Management Department Director Laurie Rasmus said the increase was driven by several factors, including steps needed to comply with various regulatory requirements.
“These costs were not fully understood until soil borings were studied and engineering costs were included,” Rasmus said.
The county board approved the Buffett donation in April. A vote to rezone the land for the campus is expected at the county board’s October meeting.
The construction cost is to be covered through a 20-year bond issued by the Decatur Public Building Commission, which manages county facilities. That loan would be paid off through an existing tax levy and not increasing existing tax rates.
Rasmus said the recycling portion could be running by next year. Currently, recycling is offered at special events. The drive-through would allow recycled items to be dropped off year-round.
Before construction can begin, the county board must re-zone the area from agricultural to light industrial. Once that is approved, the county also must approve a lease agreement with the Decatur Public Building Commission. Rasmus said that step could happen by the end of the year.
The project faced a rough introduction when it went through its first county board committee earlier this summer, as the county Zoning Board of Appeals voted 3-2 to deny the petition at a July meeting. Board members did not give any precise reason for the decision, but the meeting included several concerns raised by members of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, which would be diagonal from the site across Wyckles Road.
The concerns ranged from the likelihood the campus would increase traffic, to air quality, unsightly visuals from the site and potential harm to surrounding land value.
Gale Hutchens, chairman of the church’s committee that oversees the property and who raised some of the questions asked during the county meeting, could not immediately be reached for further comment.
The zoning board of appeals’ vote was only a recommendation, and the county board can still approve the project with a simple majority vote.
Part of the reason for the delay in the county’s action on the project was because of the zoning board’s vote, said county board Chairman Jay Dunn. He said he hoped the additional time would allow Rasmus to meet with the church and any others who might have questions or concerns.
Dunn also reiterated that the facility, even with the new cost estimate, would not mean a tax increase on residents. Including the proposed 20-year bond to pay for the facility, Dunn said the tax levy for a $75,000 home would go down by about $12 a year due to the county recently making final payments on the bond for its courthouse complex and its office building.
As for why the site was chosen, Rasmus said they had looked across the county for a location that met several parameters, including:
• 40 acres or more
• No residences within an eighth of a mile
• An area southwest, but still approximate, of Decatur that was along routes used by hauling trucks
• Along a corridor road or a paved road
• Outside a flood zone
• Compatible with the surrounding area
The composting facility also is modeled after the Landscape Recycling Center, operated by the city of Urbana. The nonprofit operation opened 30 years ago and turns yard debris like grass clippings and brush cuttings into compost and mulches that are sold.
The goal is to provide enough money so the Macon County operation at least breaks event financially, and several county board members toured the Urbana center in August.
“We’re holding it up as a model, and a big part of it is because it’s self-sufficient,” Rasmus said.
The enthusiasm was shared by Mike Brunk, Urbana’s city arborist who runs the center. He said Macon County and Urbana could form a partnership.
“I’m excited that Decatur might be able to establish the same thing over there,” Brunk said. “So I see us sharing a lot of information, a lot of our support to benefit both of our communities.”
Among those on the tour was county board member Grant Noland, who farms on about 6,000 acres in the Decatur area with his family. He said he has nothing but praise for the Urbana site, but still has questions whether Macon County could be a viable market for a similar endeavor.
"It is going to be a big project," Noland said. "To do it, it needs to be done right from the get-go … At the end of the day, you have to ask, ‘Can we financially support that?’ We don't know at this point."
If the plan goes forward, Rasmus said the hope is the recycling facility to be operational by next year. The composting site would also be operational, but Rasmus said it would likely be 2020 until it could be sold. The reason is it can take months for organic materials, such as leaves, trees branches and other lawn wastes, to decompose and be usable for residential and commercial use.
The site would have enough space where officials could also consider developing a small solar farm, disaster debris storage site, pollinator habitat and community gardens.
Donnette Beckett contributed to this report
Some of what the Buffett Foundation has funded in Macon County
Decatur school district
City of Decatur
Central Illinois Regional Dispatch Center
Boys & Girls Club of Decatur
Children's Museum of Illinois
City of Decatur
Law Enforcement Training Center
Decatur Park District
Decatur Park District