Woodstock could approve a big housing development tonight. Many neighbors think it’s a bad idea

Potential Riverwoods subdivision could bring in several hundred residents

A protest sign along Lucas Road near the proposed Riverwoods neighborhood on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. Many neighbors have opposed the housing development.

The Woodstock City Council is set to vote on a controversial subdivision Tuesday night, Riverwoods.

One of the largest residential development proposals in the city in recent years, Riverwoods would consist of about 250 single-family homes and 76 duplex units on about 135 acres on the south side of Woodstock on the outskirts by Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital. But opponents, including many existing nearby residents, have concerns about the density and the environmental impact, including the potential loss of trees, the soil quality and the effect on the Kishwaukee River, which runs near the land in question.

One indication of the proposal’s controversy: Tuesday’s City Council meeting has been moved from City Hall to the Woodstock Opera House across the street. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.

Opponents have said the soil isn’t suitable for development. They point to a Natural Resources Inventory report – prepared by the McHenry-Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District for Lennar, the developer – indicating approximately 30% of the property contains what’s called hydric soils.

“The NRI report, one of several important tools used to evaluate a site, indicates that a significant portion of the site has hydric soils with water-related limitations that could impact basements and slabs,” according to city documents.

City documents, however, also note that hydric soil is common in McHenry County: “Many built-up areas in the County are on hydric soils, including significant portions of Crystal Lake, Lake in the Hills and Huntley. With proper design and engineering, these limitations can be overcome.”

Lennar has conducted soil borings and believes the soil can accommodate the development, according to city documents.

Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner said Monday that development has occurred on similar types of soils in southeastern McHenry County as Riverwoods and he’s “confident it can be managed.”

The potential subdivision is not the first iteration of Riverwoods. Woodstock documents indicate much of the land that the development could be built on was annexed into the city in the 1980s. Riverwoods was proposed to be built by Realen Homes in the mid-2000s and even received approval from the City Council, but was never built. Seventeen acres of the property by Lucas Road are unincorporated and would have to be annexed into the city for the development.

The Woodstock Plan Commission reviewed the development in December. Commissioners expressed concerns about density and the duplexes, with one commissioner saying that the duplexes belong should be in town rather than the outskirts. Ultimately, after a nearly 4½ hour, standing-room-only meeting during which some audience members were admonished to be civil, the commission voted against the development, but it still went before the City Council with the Plan Commission’s negative recommendation.

City Council member Natalie Ziemba said all the members of the City Council and the mayor have gotten emails and requests to meet with residents about the proposed development. “I’m glad to meet with those who have made a request to do so,” Ziemba said, calling those meetings “good conversations.”

Ziemba said she’s “taking it all into consideration.”

Turner said the council has to “take a broad view and a balanced view. We have to take a City of Woodstock view.”

Opponents of the development have other environmental worries. They also have concerns about how many trees would be cut down for the development. The city allowed Lennar to use a tree survey that was conducted in the mid-2000s, writing in city documents that a new survey was unlikely to result in much new information because the trees have largely been untouched since.

Amber Bauman lives by the proposed subdivision and says she isn’t a “tree-hugger.” But, she said, the trees serve a purpose and “deserve to be preserved.”

The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, in a letter to the mayor and council from Executive Director Lisa Haderlein, requested a new tree survey, including native trees 4″ and larger in diameter and all trees that are 8″ and larger in diameter. The Land Conservancy also asked for a tree preservation plan that has information about trees that would be removed which trees would replace them. The group also asked for the city to “require a tree replacement plan now, rather than waiting for final engineering” and also urged the council to consider sending the Riverwoods proposal back to the Plan Commission.

City documents indicate the developer has provided a tree management plan and intends to take steps to minimize tree loss, including “considering alternative layouts, providing outlots to preserve high quality trees, [and] working to adjust storm sewer locations to result in less grading around desirable trees.”

Lennar will be required to plant a minimum of 320 new trees, according to city documents, though Woodstock documents also note the City Council could require a fee in lieu of tree replacement and the city could request tree donations or trees planted in city parks.

According to city documents, however, the city has expressed a belief that Riverwoods won’t harm the Kishwaukee River, wetlands or floodplains since the development would be required to be in compliance with the county’s stormwater ordinance, which was adopted by the city.

The potential subdivision also is located within a sensitive aquifer recharge area, according to city documents, and residents have concerns about groundwater. “That’s all of our water,” Bauman said.

However, city documents note that while the subdivision overlaps with a sensitive aquifer, Northwestern Hospital in Woodstock also is in the aquifer.

“Protecting aquifer recharge areas is vitally important to the water supply. McHenry County residents and municipalities rely on underground aquifers as the primary source of water,” city documents state. “Significant commercial, industrial and residential development has occurred in [sensitive aquifer recharge areas] throughout the county without impacting nearby private wells. Large, developed portions of Cary, Crystal Lake and McHenry fall within [sensitive aquifer recharge areas].”

Another sticking point for opponents is a potential reduction in impact fees paid by the developer. Documents presented to the Plan Commission indicated Lennar may receive a $1.8 million reduction in impact fees, out of approximately $5 million. However, Tuesday’s council packet puts the impact fee reduction at about $1.5 million. Impact fees are imposed on new developments with the idea that they will fund infrastructure required to accommodate the new buildings. Notably, the local school district will not see a reduction in its share of the impact fees, according to city documents.

“That’s not unusual in the current development environment,” Turner said of impact fee reductions.

But opponents have a different view. “That then falls on the taxpayers, and I don’t think people realize that,” Bauman said. “Why do we have to pay it?”

Opponents stress they are not against growth.

“This development has been suggested to represent the issues of whether growth is good for Woodstock or whether Woodstock should not grow. We suggest that this miscasts things. The objections are not based on whether or not growth is good for Woodstock but whether this particular series of parcels is where Woodstock should grow,” a post about the development on the Gitlin Law Firm website reads. Gunnar Gitlin, who is an attorney at the firm, lives by the development and wrote in letters to city officials that he is “representing the interests of the objectors” to the development.

One of the neighbors Gitlin helped is Megan Liebetrau, whose property backs up to the proposed development, and has said a lot of her concerns relating to the development are environmental. Liebetrau said her property is on the same soils as the development and her “sump pump runs nonstop” or her basement would flood.

“I feel like it’s going to be [a burden] on homeowners down the road,” Liebetrau said of the development and environmental worries.

The city’s consideration Tuesday is expected to involve a series of separate votes, including on the annexation, the zoning change, a special-use permit and the plat of subdivision.

A Lennar spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions or a message seeking comment.

The question the City Council will be weighing, the mayor said, is “do we want the growth and economic impact in the city of Woodstock?”