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Sand firm, couple dispute numbers

Wedron residents Tom and Diane Skomski know their property value has dropped since 2003, which was the case for many of their neighbors.

At a recent zoning board meeting, though, they were told their property value had increased. That assessment failed to include the fact the couple made improvements to the property, then saw their property value plunge.

The issue came up a couple weeks ago during a hearing for a proposal by Wedron Silica, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ohio-based Fairmount Santrol, to expand its sand mining operation on 600 acres near Wedron.

In 2014, Skomski and about 40 other Wedron residents sued Fairmount Santrol, Wedron Silica and other defendants for groundwater contamination issues in the unincorporated town northeast of Ottawa.

A recent U.S. EPA report indicates the contamination "seems to be" leakage from underground storage tanks at an old gas station, not the mines. But the litigation continues.

In response to The Times' questions, the EPA said in an email it has ruled out Wedron Silica as the cause of groundwater contamination. But it said the company's dewatering operations affect the direction of groundwater flow.

Because of the discovery of contaminants in groundwater, the county assessor's office dropped the value of properties inside Wedron — in many cases by half.

The land portion of their assessments fell to $1.

At the zoning board hearing, Wedron Silica, which is seeking a special-use permit to expand its mines, showed documents for 14 properties near the proposed expansion area that increased in value from 2007 to 2016.

This information drew the ire of the Skomskis. During the hearing, people could ask Wedron Silica representatives questions about the effects of their proposal to expand Pit 9 to areas north and west of its existing operation.

Tom Skomski took advantage of the opportunity.

"If property values are going up, how come my 23 acres were devalued to one dollar?" Skomski asked.

Sheryl Churney, a Streator attorney representing Wedron Silica, was ready for the question. In January, The Times interviewed the Skomskis as examples of residents who had seen their property values plunge in 2012.

Churney said she "respectfully" disagreed with Skomski's assertion. She presented documents to the zoning board showing the couple's property value jumped nearly 22 percent from 2003 to 2016.

The documents included the assessments for the 2003, 2004 and 2016 tax years.

The records failed to show what happened in the intervening years. The Skomski property value increased in the years before 2012 because of new structures and improvements such as an enclosed pool.

The records also didn't indicate how Skomski's property value dropped by nearly half to $155,868 in 2012 (with the land portion going to $1), from $294,351. By 2017, Skomski's property increased to $188,298, still more than $100,000 below its peak.

In 2016, the land portion of the assessment increased to nearly $27,000 — near what it was before the 2012 devaluation. But the assessor's office confirmed last week the adjustment was "simply a clerical error" and that it would be dropping the number once again to $1.

Even without the clerical error, the Skomskis saw a drop in their property value when taking into account the new structures and enclosed pool.

At the hearing, Skomski had little else to say after Churney presented the documents about his property. Later, he said he was "flustered" by her assertions.

In an email, he said Churney "misrepresented our tax status with cherry-picked numbers."

"I got flustered and shut down," he said.

In an interview, Diane Skomski said she believes the company was "trying to debunk our character."

"They tried to make us seem untrustworthy. This affects people's lives," Diane said.

'Reckless, unsupported'

In an email, Churney defended Wedron Silica. She said The Times was aware the publication of statements accusing Wedron Silica of misrepresentations is "reckless and unsupported." The company, she said, presented publicly available information in response to Skomski's assertion that his property was "valueless."

"While the land value may be $1, it is incorrect to conclude or imply that the Skomski property was valueless given that significant assessed value was assigned to the improvements on the property," Churney wrote in the email.

In January, County Assessor Stephanie Kennedy said the reason for the 2012 reductions in Wedron properties was the alleged groundwater contamination.

Wedron Silica denies it caused the pollution and points to the EPA report indicating the gas station's petroleum tanks are likely the cause.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have lived in Wedron or just outside the town.

The 14 properties that increased in value were near the 600-acre proposed mine expansion. They are not inside Wedron and are at a distance from the town.

Next up: County Board

In her email, Churney said the contaminants found in Wedron are not created or used in the industrial sand mining process.

"No underground storage tanks will be sited on the property which is subject of the special use permit application," Churney said in the email. "Consequently, there is no rational basis for believing that groundwater issues similar to those in Wedron will result from the industrial sand mining contemplated by the special use permit application."

In its application, Wedron Silica noted its existing silica sand mining, processing and transportation operations are next to the proposed expansion. The company said the new area will be consistent with the other operations and will not diminish the values of land and buildings in the vicinity.

By a 4-1 vote, the zoning board recommended against the sand mine expansion. One member said he rejected the proposal because the mining would take place on prime farmland.

The County Board, which has the final say, is expected to vote on the issue at its Monday, March 12, monthly meeting.

BY THE NUMBERS

Tom and Diane Skomski's property in Wedron is representative of others. It saw a big drop in 2012 because of groundwater contamination.

2003 $154,449

2004 $161,619

2005 $170,202

2006 $184,872

2007 $197,553

2008 $312,201

2009 $315,894

2010 $306,318

2011 $294,351

2012 $155,868

2013 $153,087

2014 $155,997

2015 $156,219

2016 $188,298

Source: La Salle County Assessor's Office

ECONOMIC IMPACT

In 2017, Wedron Silica:

— Paid more than $1.2 million in local property taxes: $847,538 for schools, $192,645 for La Salle County, $68,723 for Illinois Valley Community College, $46,716 for Serena Fire and $73,763 to the township.

— Employed 174 full-time workers.

— Logged 1,922 hours of paid volunteer time.

— Logged 3,118 hours of personal volunteer time.

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