When a Landfill Interrupts Your Evening
Let me preface this by stating that you may need a stiff drink (or three) while reading this lovely tribute to local politics and how land deals are done in Lake County, IL. I brought the links and photo receipts for this one folks. Also, I need to give proper writing and research credit to the neighbors over on the Round Lake IL Fiarfield & 120 Proposed Ski Hill Project page for their help in unknowingly assisting in this piece.
Like any normal taxpayer, saying I have a healthy distrust of local government is like asking a Bears fan if he thinks they will pull off a win against the Packers. I hope and pray for the right outcome, but past experience has left a sour taste in my mouth, so I’ve come to expect the worst.
Therefore, when the local government tries to pull a fast one, it’s on all of us to pay attention. The decisions being made in the next few days will impact our community, our commute, our tax base, and our ability to sell our homes.
HOW IT STARTED
For those unaware, about a year ago, property owners Daniel and Leah Light, along with Mr. Dan Powell of CHDS, LLC, submitted a petition to the Village of Round Lake to annex 104 acres of property bounded by Fairfield Rd, Rt. 120, Townline Rd, and the ComEd right-of-way.
Of the 104 acres, they wish to use 83 acres to construct a year-round family-oriented skiing facility. The other 11 acres closest to the hard corner of Fairfield and 120 will be reserved for future commercial development.
Among the features of the ski hill facility will be a 200 foot tall peak with ski runs covered in a synthetic material called Snowflex. Picture the artificial turf for a mini golf course. Now wet it enough to allow tubes, skis, and snowboards to slide across it. You now have year round skiing that doesn’t need actual snow.
Here’s the thing. As I’m sure you can see from the photo, there’s water coming out from the hole in the top. So this massive white plastic carpet will percolate with water. That’s because to ski with no snow, the runs need to be misted with water 12 hours a day, 7 days a week (when there isn’t a certain level of actual snow) to produce a snow feel. Doing some rough math, that’s about 225,000 gallons of water per day. Now, like any good Buckingham Fountain, some of that will be recycled. But even if 70% is recycled, we’re talking 24 million gallons of water per year. (Dan Powell claims that 80-85% will be recycled from the retention pond included in his proposal, but the Snowflex company website says it's more like 70%--so do you trust; the guy who's never done this or the company that makes the product).
I’m not the only one who must be aware that we live under a dome in Lake County, and that many communities cancel 4th of July fireworks each year due to drought conditions. Unless you are Fox Lake and can set them off on a barge in the middle of a chain of lakes, so when the barge catches fire and the show abruptly ends, you can drink your beer and rest assured that no homes, animals, humans, or prairie land was scorched in the name of our nation’s freedom. The problem with depending on Mother Nature to fill your retention pond so you don't need to tap into the local aquifer which provides well water to area residents is that, well, you're depending on Mother Nature and she's known to be a bitch.
Artificial ski hills are used all over the world, both indoor and outdoor, with 135 currently operational in 35 countries on 6 continents. However, the only other outdoor artificial year-round ski hill in the US is located at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. There is an outdoor tubing park in Branson, MO.
This is a photo of the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. It looks like a lovely facility, though judging from the hills in the distance, I’m not sure if their mountain required as much construction as the Round Lake Village has planned. Even Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin sits in an area where the topography leads you to believe that nature helped with its initial construction.
It should also be noted that this facility is located on a college campus, in a mountainous region, where the setup is markedly different from Round Lake, IL.
Strange, but according to Google Earth, I don’t see subdivision after subdivision ringing the outside of this ski hill. It looks like two major highways, a college campus, Walmart, and a bunch of other large businesses, are closest to the Snowflex mountain.
The tubing park in Branson is part of a larger adventure park at Wolfe Mountain which offers ziplining. The name alone clues you in to its location--on a mountain, not a farm field next to homes.
It is also important to note that no one from the Village has mentioned if the Snowflex Company has been contacted or consulted regarding the design of the Round Lake version. Both Wolfe Mountain and Liberty Mountain were completed within 3 years yet it’s going to take us 10-12?
And have they truly looked at the cost? The proposal itself (pg 30) claims 500 people a day would utilize the facility at any given time with 5 ski runs and 4 magic carpet lifts. There are to be 137 parking spaces and a 10,300 sq. ft. ski lodge. Given this graphic from Snowflex.com, we are looking at roughly $2-5 million just to cover the slopes with this product.
But we don't even know if that is the true cost. The Round Lake proposal is asking for 60 acres (for the math nerds that's 43,560 square feet in an acre) so we're talkng over 16 times the size of the largest column on this Snowflex chart. Are we seriously considering spending $212 to $440 million to cover the slopes of this midwest recreational mecca?
Also, according to the technical FAQs on the Snowflex website, depending on usage, the Snowflex itself only lasts between 5-10 years. This means you need to replace the most wear and tear parts of the hill--every 5-10 years. Yes, you build that into ticket prices, but at what point do your tickets turn people off from going? Did anyone on the Planning and Zoning board ask about this, or any other concerns, before the propsal got this far? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not.
Why? Because I don’t think they’ve considered the finer details of this entire project or spoken to anyone from the company that actually makes the product they are planning to order and use. Why? Because that’s too far ahead in the future. The only real plan right now is to approve the “idea” of a ski hill that may or may not ever happen. Right now, the only proposal before the Village is approving whether or not CHDS gets to use the property at Fairfield and 120 as a dumping ground.
Back on June 28, 2022, there was a public hearing where the Planning and Zoning Commission considered the annexation and ski hill petition and recommended by a 3 to 2 vote that the Village Board move forward with its approval. Didn’t hear about it? You and I both.
It’s interesting to note that on the Village website, minutes and audio from Plan and Zoning meetings can be found for May 31 and April 26. These minutes contain the record of how specific members voted on items which come before them. Yet no minutes or audio are posted for the June 28 meeting as I write this piece. The website lists seven members on the Planning and Zoning Board, but for those interested, which three voted to approve the ski hill, which two voted not to approve it, and which two abstained or did not vote--is something unknown to the general community.
Typically, following the passage of a project out of Planning and Zoning, it would then go to the Board as a whole to be voted on and in most cases approved. (you can listen to audio from the public comment session here).
And that friend is how we came to August 1, the evening in question. This is when, unknown to me and likely many area residents, the Unwanted Ski Hill was set to be approved. Thankfully, a handful of perceptive local residents showed up to give public comments, chaos ensued, and I had to resort to the Tito's.
So grab another beverage and let's continue...
HOW IT'S GOING
On the evening of August 1, neighbors began updating their Facebook posts from the Village Hall as they were attending the board meeting concerning the landfill/ski hill project. I was shocked upon discovering the plans had made it this far and , like you, still had so many questions. Lucky for you, I'm a Capricorn, professional teacher, and we share a wine club membership with my parents, so I got this.
You would think such a huge project, one that stands to put our community “on the map” as a recreational destination, would get more hype from the Mayor and the Trustees online, in social media, or with a water bill insert, instead of being buried in committee meeting notes, which, let’s be honest, has about the same interest as watching paint dry. But like normal adults, we don’t read shit, and we’re usually late to the party. Now we’ve arrived in large numbers, asking the Village to pump the brakes before barreling off the edge of a cliff.
So what’s in it for the Village? Well, money obviously. This project will have 3 phases and take 10-12 years to complete. The Village will collect $1.5 million in tipping fees. That sounds good, until you realize that Big Hollow School District (which serves part of Round Lake's residents) sold their old property at Rt. 134 and Rt. 12 for around that price about 3 years ago--making that money in one transaction--while the Village will collect its money over the course of 10-12 years while this project is completed (if it is completed).
It’s also important to remember that those fees will come from the 150 trucks per day barrelling down Townline Rd. east of Fairfield (which is already falling apart) in front of the few private homes located there, ripping apart the street and destroying the lives of homeowners who cannot sell their homes once they live across from an eyesore. These residents are unincorporated Grayslake, by the way, and cannot vote in village elections, even though about one mile down the same road is the Round Lake Public Works Building, Police Department, and a massive subdivision with a K-8 school.
Why not access the site directly from Rt. 120 or Fairfield, you ask? Well, Lake County won’t give CHDS permission to do that. It’s the same reason CHDS has to access their dump site at Wilson Rd. and 120 off Wilson and not 120. But Townline Rd. is under the jurisdiction of the Village of Round Lake, so if you can’t get approval for 150 trucks a day to run in and out of access points off Lake County roads, just ask the Village for the permission instead.
By the way, do you know what 200 feet looks like? A fully assembled NASA space shuttle is 184 feet tall, so..
Oh, and let’s not forget the lights. You can’t go tubing at night without lights. The 5 ski runs, 4 lifts, 137 parking spaces--you have to light that up. So, take your Space Shuttle, add 20 feet (an average 2 story home) and then put Jewel parking lot light poles on top. Hope you have blackout curtains in whatever rooms of your home face toward Fairfield and 120.
BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE!
And now it’s time for the gossip. You know, the backstabbing, middle school shit you thought you were done with, but never really went away? I mean, why else did we go to bus stops and book clubs when our kids were little? I mean aside from the wine.
First, it should be noted that the developer, Mr. Dan Powell, owns multiple LLCs, and yet not one of them is an actual construction business. Currently, you can find CHDS at the corner of Wilson Rd. and Rt. 120. It’s a huge dirt pile, along with mulch, concrete, and other construction debris. Trucks rumble in and out all day long, dumping their shit. CHDS takes in construction and landscaping waste, while also turning around and selling it to those looking to purchase. For example, a large truck can dump logs for $100 and then purchase premium mulch for $15 per cubic yard.
So yes, Mr. Powell's company owns big dump trucks and bulldozers, and the equipment needed to literally move earth and build a mountain of unwanted soil, concrete, brick, asphalt, and clay dropped off by others. But what we aren't seeing is any evidence that he actually builds anything. From a simple storage shed to a housing community, to a Walmart complex, to a Ski Lodge with a restaurant, Mr. Powell doesn't build things like that. Yet the Village of Round Lake is ready to shake his hand and award him a 10-12 year contract to build an entire recreation complex, without proof that he's ever built anything before. As noted by a dear friend, would you hire an insurance salesman to build an addition to your home just because he drew you a cool picture of what it would look like?
Mr. Powell’s previous LLC was called PML Development. It is now bankrupt due to legal trouble it had with Hawthorn Woods over a project they were doing with that village. Both sides were found to be in breach of contract. Hawthorn Woods basically hired PML to work on a parcel of property that they wanted to eventually transform into a recreational/municipal complex. However, the town didn’t put together a plan from the start--they didn’t have a concept for the land’s use from the beginning. They began changing how they wanted things done, as trucks and machines plowing through the land, changing the rules to the game after the game already started. On the flip side, PML failed to meet their contractual obligations in a drawdown account, while also deciding not to pay the property taxes on some land. So it was scooped up from under them, and they would not have been able to turn over the entire property to Hawthorn Woods free and clear. This whole ordeal spent years in the courts, while the land itself, and those who lived near it, suffered.
Aside from the now defunct PML and up and running CHDS, Mr. Powell also runs or has a hand in: Powell Inc, Da Development LLC, and Richland Creek Round Lake LLC. Is it necessarily a bad thing to own or be part owner in 5 different companies? No. But with at least one of them bankrupt and sued, and none of them an actual construction company with a portfolio of things it has built, it would give me pause before trusting them. If Mr. Powell goes bankrupt, walks away, builds a flawed ski lodge or doesn’t finish what he starts--we are left with serious issues and expenses moving forward.
This is not the first time Mr. Powell has tried the ski hill proposal. He made a similar pitch to Zion. After three years of failing to acquire the needed permits, the seller ultimately got tired of waiting and pulled out of the deal. The residents of that district saw the ski hill for what it was, a scam, and wanted nothing to do with it.
And there’s more (because of course there is)
You may ask yourself how Mr. Powell was chosen for this project. Well, it's all in who you know, of course. It seems Mr. Powell conducted personal business with the previous Mayor of Round Lake, Dan MacGillis. The current Mayor of Round Lake, Russ Kraly, was a Village Trustee under former Mayor Dan MacGillis.
Back in 2016, Mayor MacGillis brought Mr. Powell in, hoping to spur development. It did not go well. Here are a portion of minutes from a Village Board meeting from 2016:
The former mayor also had business with Mr. Powell in 2019...
Here’s the property referenced.
Now, here’s the tea. Dan MacGillis is no longer Mayor of Round Lake. Either he didn’t run, retired, or lost his re-election in 2021, but whatever the case, Russ Kraly was elected Mayor of Round Lake in April 2021 for a 4 year term. As someone who was a Trustee in 2016 and 2019, Mayor Kraly certainly knows who Dan Powell is. So again, is it any wonder why Dan Powell and his ski hill project are on the verge of passage today?
THE BIG QUESTION
Is a year-round Ski Hill proposal the best we can do here, or is it the only proposal being pushed forward by a guy who knows the Mayor and some Trustees because he is friends with the former mayor? I don't know the answer to that. I'm entitled to my own opinion on the matter, as are you.
At the Aug. 1 Village meeting, it was stated that the purpose of this project was to create a destination for recreational use, drawing people, and their money, to the area, thus generating income for the village. I think everyone here is in favor of that concept. We desperately need more businesses on these parcels to help offset the huge burden the local government has stacked on us as homeowners. When you have a small, underdeveloped, scattered “downtown” surrounded by congested two lane roads, subdivision after subdivision, a few strip malls containing a Subway and a Great Clips, and combine it with a state government that is less than helpful, generating enough revenue to pay for all the needs and wants of the community will be an issue--especially given the current financial climate.
But is a year-round ski hill the best we can do here? Are there other recreational uses which could be built on this site that, when paired with restaurants and other amenities, would make it more pleasing to investors, neighbors, and our community? Have we considered our own RecPlex, indoor pool, ultra mini golf, skate park, go kart, climbing course, zip lining, indoor/outdoor year-round land use proposal (put forth from a qualified construction company no less) that doesn’t deplete an aquifer, cause soil erosion, contaminate soil, or light up a 200 ft. dirt pile outside someone’s doorstep?
OH, AND ANOTHER THING...
It was also noted on Aug. 1 that 11 acres of the property will be reserved for future commercial development. But, without the proper means to hold the developer accountable, who’s going to want to put up their restaurant on this ruined site when these plans don’t pan out? Of course, as our luck would have it, we’ll probably end up with another bank, pharmacy, oil change, and mini mart.
Why can’t we actively pursue commercial development along 120 and Fairfield first? Why do we have to experiment with an untested, unproven gamble and dig up the back corner of this property closest to where homes are currently located, instead of seeking true business opportunities on the more visible corner where we would work with Lake County to improve the road access and corridor as a whole?
Well, I think I’ve figured that one out all on my own. Stop me when the dollar signs dry up.
Dan and Leah Light own the current ski hill property. They also own the property to the west of Fairfield. I don't know what the current zoning is on either property, only that they are being leased right now for farming and that part of the proposal put forth by CHDS deals with changing the zoning to suit the development needs.
According to the audio from the public comment portion from the August 1 meeting (8:10), the village will use their best effort to transfer sewer density from the ski hill side of Fairfield Rd. to the east side of Fairfield Rd. where the Lights also own property. This will make the land more suitable for residential development--meaning the Lights could one day sell that land to a housing developer, and Round Lake could annex it as part of their tax base (but send those kids to Grayslake schools, I’m sure they aren’t already overcrowded or anything).
Do you see where we are heading? Give Mr. Powell--someone who has never built a deck much less a ski lodge facility as far as the public knows-- a great business deal to make money taking in everyone else's unwanted construction debris, pay off the Village with a mere $1.5 million in tipping fees, pile that crap 200 feet high with the promise of a ski hill at some later time, and run the sewers and needed utilities across the road so that land will be more attractive to a housing developer.
If the ski hill fails to ever be constructed, the homes across the street still have a chance, and that's where the true money is made. Villages thrive on more adding more taxpayers to their base, hooking up to their water and sewer systems, paying to use their Park District programs, shopping at their businesses, getting caught speeding on their roads. Owners make huge money selling those large parcels of land. This area is by no means "built out" and the choice we make regarding the available land will shape (or haunt) this community for generations to come.
There’s nothing wrong with building recreational activities and amenities to attract people to our area, but we need to sit down as a community and map out a future vision of where we want these items placed and in what proximity to already existing homes. The Village of Round Lake is in a unique position right now. We are at a crossroads between balancing progress with sustainability, bringing in revenue to survive our future without compromising the quality of life which has shaped our past. I was raised in Naperville, so I know a little about small towns becoming larger and almost unrecognizable in that growth.
When you put up nothing but homes, you add children into school districts, which may or may not be equipped to handle them, leaving a huge burden on the homeowners to pony up. When you add businesses, you take some tax pressure off homeowners to generate your revenue, but you also generate traffic and noise so you need to be mindful about where you place them. When you actively seek out all stakeholders to help develop projects that benefit everyone, you foster trust and a true sense of community.
I caution the Village from thinking first about dollar signs, and remembering that it is the people who make this community a great place to live, and it is the community who has a habit of voting out those who fail to listen to their concerns.
The next Village of Round Lake board meeting is Monday, August 15 at 6:45 at the Village Hall located on Cedar Lake Rd. in downtown Round Lake. It's going to take many bodies arriving in a show of force to make a difference!
You can sign the Change.org petition here.