You CAN Fight City Hall…

…and sometimes win. Eleven years ago, We began a battle with a bureaucracy here in our community. At the time, the worst battle I’d ever fought was with my mother over marrying Husband. So I had no clue how to fight—no armor, no skills, no information. I only knew that our home was in danger and we’d worked hard to make this home what we wanted it to be. I wasn’t about to see it ruined for what I believed was no good reason.

The general gist is we live on a small two-lane U.S. highway and the state department of transportation (DOT) had decided they needed to expand it to five lanes.  Now, there was no valid reason to do this, no serious traffic issues, no citizens clamoring for giant ribbon of concrete to roll over our farm fields, parks, and houses. DOT just felt like adding lanes—because they could. We learned about this “improvement” when we came across surveyors in our yard one morning. That’s right, no public information meeting, no letters to stakeholders, no contact of our elected officials—DOT simply let a design contract and started surveying.

When you live on a highway, you don’t really have a neighborhood association, but one couple, who had a historic house just down the road, formed a coalition to fight the project. Husband and I jumped in with both feet (or all four feet considering there were two of us!). We researched these kinds of disputes, tramped the whole area getting petitions signed, and sought help from environmental groups, elected officials, and anyone at all who would listen. Four of us spearheaded the effort, which took us from the halls of the state capitol to workshops in Chicago to neighborhood association meetings in the area.

Husband was the petition guy and my area of expertise was the historical aspect of the road. It is the last unspoiled corridor into our city as well as the first road in the state  to be authorized by an act of the state legislature—way back in 1829.  We spent endless hours in libraries, museums, the historical society, and the state archives learning about the history of our area and in particular, the importance of our road to the development of the state.  To this history major, it was fascinating work! We were blessed to have the road officially marked as a “Historic Byway” by the state historical bureau—recognition that would make it harder for the DOT to change it to a five-lane freeway.

Ultimately, we won…well, okay, we sorta won our battle. Our continued remonstration delayed the project year after year. Just last night, over ten years from the day we found the surveyors in our front yard, we attended a public information meeting telling us that the DOT has decided to postpone the widening and just do intersection improvements for now. We’d begged for just those kinds of improvements the whole time we were fighting the expansion.

Did we stop it entirely? No, we only delayed it, but it’s probably postponed for more years than we will ever be here. And we gained more safety with the planned intersection improvements. More than that, we acquired a vast wealth of knowledge about how government and bureaucracy work. We learned how important it is to fight for what you know is right. But most of all, we made new friends and formed a community, even though we don’t live in a “neighborhood.” Last night, we celebrated  together at a local pub. All in all, job well done!

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