Bruce Hamann, his daughter-in-law, Virginia Hamann, and Will County Board member and neighbor Judy Ogalla (from left) stand near a shed painted to protest the route of the proposed Illiana Expressway. The recommended route for the project would extend from I-55 near Wilmington, Ill., to I-65 near Cedar Lake, Ind. Local farmers and landowners and the Illinois Farm Bureau oppose the plan that could impact Will County farmland.
Bruce Hamann, his daughter-in-law, Virginia Hamann, and Will County Board member and neighbor Judy Ogalla (from left) stand near a shed painted to protest the route of the proposed Illiana Expressway. The recommended route for the project would extend from I-55 near Wilmington, Ill., to I-65 near Cedar Lake, Ind. Local farmers and landowners and the Illinois Farm Bureau oppose the plan that could impact Will County farmland.
PEOTONE, Ill. — The dining room of Brian and Virginia Hamann’s rural Will County home is cozy on a gray day.

The black-and-white cat naps in front of a wood-burning stove, and tall glass-fronted curio cabinets display antique dishes and trinkets. Out the bay window, semi trucks on I-57 in the distance appear the size of a child’s toy.

A proposed nearly 47-mile-long expressway to connect I-55 near Wilmington with I-65 near Cedar Lake, Ind., could end that cozy scene. The trucks that appear the size of a child’s toy could become full-size, zooming by a roadway that could cut Brian and Virginia Hamann’s cozy dining room in half.

The preferred proposed route, known as “B3,” could have major impacts on not just the Hamann’s farm and home, but dozens of other farms and homes along the route.

“My message is — this is a 47-mile fence with a few openings in it,” Bruce Hamann said.

He is a dairy and grain farmer. He, his wife and their son, Brian, and Brian’s wife, Virginia, operate a 120-head dairy operation on an 80-acre farm, and they also farm 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

Bruce Hamann has been farming on a full-time basis for 35 years. He leads one of just six dairy farms still operating in Will County.

Hamann’s farm, where the dairy operation is located, is 10 miles east of the farm where Brian and Virginia Hamann and their family live.

Bruce Hamann has been the Will County road commissioner for 16 years.

Back in 2010, he started hearing about a proposed expressway plan, called the Illiana. While he made note of it, the plan was in its infancy and had many site options under consideration.

“My first impression was this is another project that won’t become reality,” he said.

The Hamanns and neighbor Judy Ogalla, who farms with her husband, are used to the state making plans for major projects. Ogalla’s farm lies entirely in the footprint of the proposed MidAmerica Airport, the “third airport” near Peotone that has been under discussion for decades.

Bruce Hamann expected that the Illiana Expressway project would be something similar — a project with a lot of talk, but not much action.

“All at once, it was put on the fast track, and all at once, they had four sites to choose from, four corridors, and it ended up being the B3 as their preferred route,” he said.

“They” is the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

IDOT, INDOT and the Federal Highway Administration completed the Tier 1 part of the process, which now is in the Tier 2 stage.

In a news release issued in January to announce the recommendation of the B3 route, the IDOT said “Public opinion favored Corridor B3 with a 90 percent of government/interest group public hearing comments supporting a build alternative in favor of Corridor B3.”

At a meeting in December 2012, hosted by the Will County Farm Bureau, more than 100 local residents and landowners showed up to hear from the IDOT and Illinois Farm Bureau officials about the status of the Illiana Expressway.

The comments made at that meeting by those local residents were anything but supportive of the project. Bruce and Virginia Hamann were at the meeting, along with Judy Ogalla.

One of Bruce Hamann’s concerns is that, throughout the process up to this point, the voices of the many people opposed to the project largely have been ignored in local and regional media, making it seem like people support the project more than they actually do.

“I started going to public hearings and listening to people there voice their opposition. Then, when we would read about those meetings in the paper, it was always reported as everyone was always in favor of the Illiana Expressway,” he said.

Hamann, wanting to know if others were as concerned as he was, talked to his neighbors.

“Their opinion was the same as mine. This thing will never happen. Then they got hold of some money and started the engineering studies,” he said.

For the Hamanns, the B3 route will have a potentially catastrophic impact — it would cut their farm in half and terminate access to a 40-acre section of the farm.

“It’s going through cropland and pasture. I won’t have access to the back half of the farm. Forty acres would be landlocked. It will be surrounded on one side by the expressway and then on the other side by farmland since it’s in the middle of a section,” Bruce Hamann said.

That leaves him with few options.

“I guess I will either end up having to sell it to an adjacent landowner or take my chances of getting across the toll road,” he said.

The proposed route has undergone changes as engineers encounter obstacles, including areas that once were wetlands, and move the route around those obstacles.

Along with the B3 route, IDOT and INDOT also advanced a no-build alternative that would upgrade existing roads and take the route south into Kankakee County.

Hamann traveled to Kankakee County with a group of Will County residents and officials to talk to residents and officials in Kankakee County who would like to see the project located there.

“If there’s a true need for this road, it needs to go further south, into Kankakee County, Illinois Route 17 straight east to I-65,” he said.

Hamann said that the advantages of utilizing existing infrastructure are clear.

“You’re utilizing a lot of infrastructure that’s already there. You already have an interchange at I-57 and Illinois 17, and they’ve already got it on the drawing board to improve that interchange in the next few years, so why not take it there?” he said.

One of the selling points by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and the IDOT is that the new expressway would create or maintain temporary construction jobs and add other jobs, as well as attract economic development.

Ogalla said that the southern no-build route through Kankakee County would do just that.

“There are brownfield sites down there where manufacturing has moved out and they are sitting empty, so there’s an existing manufacturing business hub in Kankakee. If they want any kind of economic development, you have an exit off there and business development right there versus having to go through the middle of farmland where you don’t have any kind of hub at all,” she said.

The Illinois Farm Bureau has officially opposed the plan and the quick-take option that the project was granted by the Illinois General Assembly in 2012. Quick-take allows the agency, IDOT in this case, if negotiations with landowners fail and condemnation becomes necessary, to fast-track that process.

At a hearing, IDOT has to prove immediate need for the property, a judge sets a preliminary compensation amount for the property owner and IDOT can then obtain title to the land and proceed with a project and pay the property owner that preliminary amount.

But the Hamanns and others already are dealing with impacts. Those include, in the early stages of the project, the movement of surveyors onto private property without first notifying property owners.

“When this thing was still in its infancy stage, I was outside and I saw a pickup truck at the end of our property out in the field. I thought, well, I didn’t invite anyone here, so I drove back and it was surveyors. They came across our wheat field, and when they left, they went out across where I’d just spread manure,” Hamann said.

The random comings and goings of various surveying and archaeological survey firms onto the properties along the B3 route was one of the chief topics of concern voiced at that meeting in December. Various property owners told of unidentified individuals walking onto and driving onto land and photographing property and residences.

For livestock farms and dairies such as the Hamanns’, that unauthorized movement adds an additional concern.

“With dairy cattle, they are very finicky about disease. You can bring disease onto a farm by doing something as simple as buying used gates from another farmer. Veterinarians are very cautious about what they do when they come on the place. They put on clean clothes. They wash their boots before they go in and after they are done. To have a stranger come driving onto your place, I don’t know where he’s been. Then he drives through cattle manure and maybe goes over to another dairy farm to do the same thing,” Hamann said.

Ogalla is a first-term Will County Board member. The 160-acre farm that has been in her husband’s family for generations would be wiped out by the MidAmerica Airport.

She has been the vice president of STAND, Shut This Airport Nightmare Down, for 12 years.

While the Illiana Expressway would not affect her farm, Ogalla said she wants farmers and rural landowners to take a stand against how agencies treat farmers and their land.

“My experience with it is the treatment that landowners get when the state decides to do a project,” she said, noting that the Illiana Expressway has received the support of the Will County Board. “My thought is we need to take a step back and really think about our future. Continuing to grow into farmland is not always the best idea.”

Ogalla added that the concept of traffic switching to a pay-for-use road might not be the most realistic vision.

“If you get on a tollway, you don’t get on and off a tollway like you do a highway because you’ve got to pay. You can get on and off I-57 and go to a restaurant. You’re not going to do that on a tollway. I think sometimes they should be looking at what we can do with existing roadways, to upgrade those and bring that truck traffic through local areas where businesses already exist and help those businesses thrive so you’re keeping like businesses together,” said Ogalla.

Virginia Hamann has been outspoken in her opposition to the project along the B3 route. She said she is concerned not just about the route but about the potential effects that increased pollution could have on the alfalfa that the family grows for hay for their dairy cows.

She also worries about one more – or many more – acres being covered in concrete.

“You can’t keep paving over farmland. This highway is going to split not just one farm but split how many farms? Now all that acreage is going to be lost,” said Hamann.

Ogalla said the treatment that farmers receive at the hands of lawmakers when a new project is proposed needs to change.

“What they’re doing is they’re saying other peoples’ businesses and their jobs and their livelihoods are more important than that of a farmer. What gets me is the farmer is the one who is continually hit for all these projects that politicians dream up. They get their unions behind them, and they’re all excited. But why should the farmer continually get hit? Why is the agriculture business not as important as everybody else’s business?” she said. “I think farmers need to wake up and stick together and say we’ve had enough.”

For now, operations on the Hamann farm and those farms potentially impacted by the Illiana Expressway will continue — along with the opposition to the project.

Hamann said the group will continue to offer not just opposition, but an alternative.

“We will continue to push for a no-build alternative in Kankakee County,” he said.