Open burning still a problem in Will County
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org September 20, 2013 11:38PM
Updated: October 23, 2013 6:14AM
Mary Ann Buonadonna is girding herself for the leaf-burning season.
Buonadonna, 66, lives in New Lenox, which, like most municipalities, bans open burning of leaves and other yard waste.
But she’s only a block or so away from unincorporated areas where burning is allowed if it is at least 50 feet from a structure. That restriction isn’t enough to keep smoke from wafting into her neighborhood and yard season after season.
Buonadonna has a mold allergy, so the smoke really bothers her.
“I have a beautiful porch and last year I couldn’t even sit in there,” she said. “I can’t ride my bike, I can’t walk outside. I didn’t move to New Lenox to smell smoke.”
Two years ago, Buonadonna tried to do something about the problem. She contacted Mayor Tim Baldermann, but he told her she would have to work with the Will County Board, which governs unincorporated areas. She wrote some letters to the board but didn’t get very far and gave up.
This year, she saw a letter from a doctor in the newspaper that railed against open burning and the carcinogens it releases into the air. Buonadanna called the doctor, and they agreed to go before the county board’s public health and safety committee in March.
Their complaints sparked action by the committee, which worked this summer to tweak the county ordinance to increase the ban on burning to 100 feet from any structure. The committee also has proposed redefining a “structure” to include railroad tracks, which would help Buonadonna because one of her neighbors who burns does it along Metra tracks, she said.
Committee member Tom Weigel (R-New Lenox) also suggested that open burning be prohibited within 1,000 feet of a home where someone with a chronic respiratory condition lives. The existing ordinance already bans burning within 1,000 feet of a school, park, hospital or nursing home.
“I think our ordinance is a step in the right direction,” Weigel said at a Sept. 12 public hearing on the revised ordinance.
During the hearing, board member Judy Ogalla (R-Monee) said people who move into unincorporated areas expect to be able to burn yard waste.
But Buonadonna said the people whom Ogalla described have large lots involving multiple acres. The unincorporated area near Buonadonna’s home is residential with much smaller lots. She said she wishes the county would limit burning to multi-acre lots.
“Peotone is different than here,” she said of her neighborhood. “This is not rural. It’s by no means rural.”
Open burning has been a problem in Will County for years. As the population mushroomed, more people now reside in unincorporated areas.
And the county is so big, it would be expensive to provide yard waste pickup for all of the unincorporated areas, and townships cannot afford to provide the service in most areas, officials have said. Only Frankfort Township picks up yard waste from unincorporated areas.
“All they have to do is push it out into the street, and we have a big leaf picker-upper and we suck up all the leaves,” said Jim Moustis (R-Frankfort Square), the chairman of the county board’s Republican caucus and the Frankfort Township supervisor.
Another major problem with banning or restricting open burning is enforcement. Buonadonna said she has called the sheriff’s police to complain, but burning leaves apparently is not a priority.
“You can call until you’re blue in the face, they don’t come,” she said. “What good is the law if it can’t be enforced?”
Health and safety committee chairman Joe Babich (D-Joliet) is sympathetic to Buonadonna’s cause and would like to go further in restricting open burning, beyond the proposed ordinance.
“It’s a safety issue for seniors and anybody with asthma or other breathing problems,” Babich said. “The smoke doesn’t help them. I’d like to see it where the farmers are the only ones who burn.”
But committee vice chairman Don Gould (R-Shorewood) voted with Ogalla against the revised ordinance going to public hearing.
“Basically, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for Will County,” Gould said. “It’s hard to do an ordinance that works for rural, semi-rural, suburban and urban areas. We have a very diverse county with a lot of different land uses.”
Gould said he and Ogalla’s districts include most of the unincorporated areas of the county.
“We have older subdivisions with a lot of trees and people who still burn, and the townships do not pick up in our unincorporated areas,” he said.
The revised ordinance would prohibit open burning within 100 feet of houses, garages, sheds, pole barns, fences, above-ground pools, railroads and other accessory structures. The proposed changes added railroads and fences and took out the word “neighboring” so the 100-foot limit would prevent homeowners from burning near their houses as well.
After one warning, violators would be fined $50 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses.
Babich said he doesn’t think the ordinance will be ready for a vote in October, so he expects it to be voted on at the committee’s meeting Nov. 14, which would send it to the full county board for a vote Nov. 21. The committee and board both meet at the Will County Office Building, 302 N. Chicago St., Joliet.
Meanwhile, Buonadonna waits for change so she can enjoy her neighborhood without fear of encountering smoke.
“I was hoping it would be done by the end of the month,” she said of the amended ordinance.
With falling leaves soon to occur, she said, “people are going to be burning, burning, burning.”