Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dam Land Acquisition Problems

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rolled out a revised plan in 1967 for a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River to be located north of La Farge, many felt that the project would bring some sort of prosperity to the region. The revised plan, which expanded the size and scope of an earlier 1962 proposal, called for the construction of a much larger dam on the river. The larger dam would create a 1,800-acre lake between La Farge and Ontario, designed to draw tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts to the area. Thirteen recreation areas would surround the lake to offer the visitors to Lake La Farge camping, fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities.

In a public information meeting held at La Farge in 1968, the representatives of the Corps of Engineers explained the process for the construction of the dam and the creation of the lake and recreation areas. The process to be used for acquisition of the nearly 9,000 acres of land needed for the dam and lake project was also explained at the meeting, held at the new gymnasium of the local school. At the November 19th public meeting, representatives from the Corps of Engineers land acquisition office in Rock Island, Illinois were introduced. People at the meeting who had questions about the land acquisition process were referred to a Corps pamphlet, which had been mailed earlier to land owners that would be affected by the project.

The Corps representatives present in La Farge that night assured the local people in attendance that the land acquisition would take place in an orderly fashion starting at the dam site and progressing up the Valley. All of the land for the project would be purchased by 1972, which was also the date for the completion of the dam and the beginning of the process to fill the lake. In 1969, landowners north of La Farge began the process of selling their land to the federal government for the dam project.

In the earliest phase of the project, nearly all of the land purchased for the project was located in the Town of Stark. As the acquisitions by the Corps for the dam project were completed, the tax rolls for the township began to shrink. As more and more people in Stark sold their land to the federal government, the property tax burden for the remaining landowners in the township became greater. As the Corps representatives negotiated the purchases of land in the Town of Stark for the dam project, they were doing more than just acquiring lands. The process was also shifting the resulting loss in property tax revenue over to the remaining landowners in the township. As names like Rush, Shumate, Rankin’s, Anderson, and Trappe disappeared from the tax rolls of the Town of Stark, others would have to assume the lost tax revenue for the township, school district, and county. It was an unintended consequence of the land acquisition process.

By December of 1970 when the property tax rolls were published by the local government units, the property owners in the Town of Stark would see firsthand the unintended consequences of the La Farge Dam Project. Most landowners in the township saw their taxes increase by more than 25%. Property taxes for Virgil Thomas, who lived along Bear Creek, increased from $413 in 1969 to $537 in 1970, an increase of 30%. Thomas’ neighbor Don Potter saw his taxes go up 24%, while up the road, Ralph Steinmetz’ property taxes increased 28%. It was the same throughout the township. Van Aumuck’s property taxes rose 37% and Dale Fish’s went up 26%. The largest percentage increase in the township for the 1970 tax year was felt by Howard Anderson, whose taxes rose from $348 to $652 – a whopping increase of 87%. Ironically, Anderson’s negotiations with the Corps of Engineers for the sale of his property probably figured into the huge increase.

Anderson owned the farm where most of the eastern end of the flood control dam would be located. In the process of negotiating with the Corps Rock Island land acquisition office, Anderson had improved the value of his property, which had probably been under assessed previously. By whitewashing several farm buildings and making repairs to others, Anderson not only increased the value of his farm for purchase by the government for the dam project, but also for tax assessment. Anderson paid the tax increase for one year, but by the following year had sold most of his farm to the federal government and saw his property taxes decrease to only $97 – a drop of over 85% from the previous year. Other taxpayers in the township would have to make up the loss. The shift of the tax burden weighed heavily on the community.

In the February 11, 1971 issue of the La Farge Enterprise, editor Arnie Widstrand addressed the local property tax problems in a front page editorial titled “Construction and Acquisition”. The editorial was prompted by an announcement from Washington D C a week earlier that $1.73 million was to be included in the proposed federal budget for the La Farge Dam Project. The announcement said that the money would be used for construction of the dam and further land acquisitions. In response, editor Widstrand wrote, “That this money NOT be used to purchase any more land to the north of the project. We do not need any more land taken off the tax rolls in this area. It is too much of a burden on the remaining taxpayers. (Every taxpayer in the Town of Stark knows of what we speak as their taxes soared this year.)

At previous meetings the Corps made it known that the plan was to buy some land, then build the dam, and continue buying land northward as the dam progressed. It is estimated that 47% of the land needed for the project has been purchased. That is plenty. Now start the dam. If all the land were bought it would be very easy to lose the project through, inefficiency of our bureaucracies, public apathy, lack of interest of public representatives, change of public interest in and attitude toward the project, or just plain difficulty in getting money for it through the Congress.

At any rate, if the $1.7 million goes through and is used to acquire land, it will do us more harm than good. What we need now is more employment in the area, not more land taken off the tax roll.”

By March the federal budget had been approved by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon. The nearly $2-million appropriation for the La Farge project was included. In April 1971 the Corps of Engineers announced that 1,646 acres of agricultural land in the Kickapoo Valley purchased for the dam project was available for lease. In addition, the Corps Rock Island land acquisition office released a list of buildings and personal property available for purchase on the lands purchased for the dam project. Included in the list of items for sale were 12,500 mink pens. All of the listed property, buildings and items had once been assessed for payment of property taxes in the township. Eventually, the federal government would own over twenty per cent of the land in the Town of Stark, over eight sections of land on which no property taxes were paid.

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