County backs rural landing striip

A special use permit allowing a Cisco-area farmer to operate a restricted landing area (RLA) on his property will remain in place. That was the unanimous decision of the Piatt County Board, which met in a special session Jan. 17 to consider the use permit for Gary L. and Mary Jane Norfleet , which was approved in March of 2008.

Sandy Smith, a neighbor of the Norfleets, had complained that pilots for Mike’s Aerial Service – which uses Norfleet’s grass strip as a launching point for Piatt County crop-dusting jobs – was flying too close to her home, scaring not only her family but the dogs that reside in her commercial kennel.

At last week’s meeting, she focused more on an incorrect legal description that was published as part of the 2008 approval. Public notices of the RLA for last week’s hearing were different than the 2008 document, which Smith said invalidated the special session itself.

“When the notice is flawed, when the notice is inaccurate, when the legal description is not accurate, then no notice has been given,” said Smith, who proposed the meeting be continued to another date while the legal description issue was addressed.

“Tonight we cannot legally talk about it,” claimed Smith.

State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades said there are “no statutes that govern hearings of this nature. This is really a hearing on a request to revoke a special use permit. Under the zoning ordinance in the county code, there is no statute the governs notice requirements for petition or requests to revoke a special use permit.”
She admitted that there was an incorrect legal description approved with the 2008 use permit, but said that case law shows that as long as notices “fairly apprise” interested parties then the permit can still be valid.

Elizabeth Megli, an attorney representing the Norfleets, also claimed the statute of limitations to protest the RLA had passed back in 2008.

County board members decided to go ahead and hear testimony on both sides of the issue. A majority of the 15 who testified supported the RLA, saying that crop-dusting is necessary for modern-day corn hybrids.

“There’s a small window to do this,” said Gary Norfleet of aerial application, commonly referred to as crop-dusting. He estimated farmers have less than two weeks each summer to apply fungicide to crops. Norfleet added he makes no money from Mike’s Air Service, which uses his 3,000 foot landing strip to apply fungicide to several of his neighbor’s fields.

Ron Weishaar, the fire chief in Cisco, said he inspects the strip and the planes to make sure EPA standards are met, and has “always found everything in order.”

It is also a global issue, according to Dan Maggart, the general manager of Piatt County FS in Monticello. He said 23 million acres of farmland had been lost in the last 20 years due to urban sprawl.

“That’s an area the size of Indiana,” said Maggart, pointing out that the only way to feed the world with less land is to boost yields.

“I just hate to see any hurdles put up for farmers,” he said.

There was some support for Smith’s concern. A bee-keeping neighbor, Sue Boyd said her bees tend to die shortly after soybeans are sprayed. Boyd asked if she could get notice of when farmers planned to spray so she could keep her bees in the hives during those times.

“Bees pollinate plants,” she said. “You also need them to feed the world.”

Jim Payne, a Champaign man who has developed 14 acres near the landing strip as a Sangamon River-area land and water preserve, showed concern that noise from the strip could hamper his efforts to encourage wildlife at the preserve.

“I just feel it (the RLA) is a non-compatible land use,” said Payne.

But other neighbors were supportive of Norfleet’s grass strip.

“It doesn’t bother us a bit,” said Larry Leischner, who lives just southwest of the RLA. “As a matter of fact, the grandkids sit on the porch and watch,” he added.

Rick Reed of the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association said he had met with pilot Mike Schwabauer in an effort to ease tensions between him and Smith. He advised him top alter his flight path so he would not fly over her property, and to advise her prior to spraying fields adjacent to her property.

Smith said she has been given that promise before, most notably at a 2010 meeting with neighbors and the Norfleets. She also said not all neighbors were notified of the potential RLA before the special use permit was approved.

Another neighbor, Brandon Boyd, said he showed concern over the planes, which prompted Schwabauer to alter his flight path to avoid Boyd’s property.

“He’s been cordial to me,” commented Boyd.

Once an RLA is in place, the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Federal Aviation Administration oversee its operation. The county board only has control over the special use permit that was granted.

“We’ve listened to a lot of testimony, but all we have control over is the RLA,”said county board member Dick Wilkin. “We don’t have any authority over how they fly.”

That was of little solace for Smith, who said FFA officials have visited the local RLA after she complained of planes “flying through my yard at an altitude of 24 feet.”

Federal Aviation Administration rules generally require a 500 foot altitude but in agricultural application planes “may deviate” in order to maneuver and get chemicals to the crops, according to Warren Smith, an aviation inspector with the FAA in Springfield. However, the 500 foot minimum applies when crop dusters are not on the job. Those planes also cannot fly over densely populated areas.

After about two hours of testimony, the county board voted 6-0 to leave the special use permit in place, and to correct its legal description.

Sandy Smith had no comment when asked if she would pursue the issue further.



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