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Protecting Kane County’s Rural Character 

12-09-2015 17:35

Kane County is located approximately 40 miles west of Chicago. As part of an expanding metropolitan area, the county is experiencing tremendous development pressure. Chicago`s sprawling suburbs extend to the Fox River Valley in eastern Kane County, which has seen a huge population swell in recent years. Beyond the established river communities lies some of the world`s most productive and scenic farmland. Since the mid-1960s, however, Kane County has lost almost 60,000 acres of farmland to other permanent land uses - a trend that concerns citizens as well as county officials. As one of Illinois` fastest growing counties, Kane County`s population is expected to increase from 404,119 in 2000 to just over 550,000 in 2020.

Kane County`s long history of land use planning has centered on the goal of accommodating responsible growth while preserving the rural character associated with the county`s agricultural heritage. In 1937 Kane County became the second county in the state to adopt a zoning ordinance, and, in the decades that followed, formed a planning office, established a planning commission, and adopted land use policies emphasizing its commitment to rural resource protection. In 1996 the county board unanimously adopted the award-winning 2020 Land Resource Management Plan, which presents a realistic vision for how Kane County can absorb growth and man-age its built and natural resources at the same time. Additionally several programs established prior to and since the plan`s adoption play key roles in Kane County`s strategy to achieve this important goal of balanced growth.

Kane County`s 2020 Land Resource Management Plan

The 2020 Land Resource Management Plan presents an alternative to the uncoordinated development that results in suburban sprawl. The plan`s policies, goals, and objectives were established using a partnership approach for the county and its 27 municipalities. The eight partnership areas brought communities with common features or interests together to address planning issues that cross their respective municipal boundaries and have continued to facilitate cooperation between otherwise independent jurisdictions. The effectiveness of this cooperative approach has proven to be a critical factor in the successful implementation of the 2020 Plan.

At the heart of the plan is a land use strategy that seeks to retain Kane County`s historic land use pattern of higher density and compact development to the east and rural/agricultural land uses to the west. Building upon this history, the plan identifies three distinct land use strategy areas within Kane County. They are, from east to west: the Urban Corridor, the Critical Growth Area, and the Agricultural/Village Area.

The Urban Corridor is the mixture of urban and other municipal land uses along the Fox River. Approximately 80 percent of the county`s residents live in this area, which is characterized by mature residential neighborhoods, traditional downtowns, industrial areas, commercial centers, and new subdivisions. The development strategy for this area includes downtown revitalization, neighborhood preservation, and compatible infill development. While several municipalities in this area have effectively implemented this strategy, St. Charles is perhaps the most successful. (see the article that follows.) For its efforts, the community received a prestigious Great American Main Street Award in 2000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Critical Growth Area is the central portion of the county with some existing lower density development and the potential for significant future growth. It is the most challenging and rapidly changing of the three areas. The plan targets this area for carefully planned development of a density and design that respects and enhances existing built and natural resources. This is the "shock absorber" in the plan, where new development may occur as long as it is compatible with existing rural villages and the historic development of the area. Strategically, the Critical Growth Area presents opportunities for future planned growth while providing a transition from city to countryside.

The Agricultural/Village Area is the western portion of the county characterized by productive farms and rural villages. Here the land use strategy calls for protecting rich farmland from conversion to other permanent land uses, and encourages limited new development and economic growth to occur in and around existing villages in order to avoid conflicts between agricultural operations and other land uses. This approach is based on the premise that agricultural land should not simply be considered a holding zone waiting for market pressures to dictate development.

The Kane County Preservation Program

Within the 2020 Plan, a chapter is dedicated to discussing the county`s preservation pro-gram, which began in 1987 with a countywide survey of more than 26,000 structures located on almost 4,000 sites. The results of the survey were presented and analyzed in Built For Farming: A Guide to the Historic Rural Architecture of Kane County. The book, published in 1991, was designed to educate both professionals and nonprofessionals concerning the county`s physical, economic, and social evolution; its historic resources; and its preservation challenges.

In 1988 the Kane County Historic Preservation Ordinance was adopted by the county board in order to recognize and protect important historic and scenic resources from demolition and inappropriate alteration. As the first county preservation ordinance in Illinois, it created the Kane County Register of Historic Places, the official list of county-designated landmarks, and established the Kane County Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews exterior alterations, construction, and demolition proposed for properties protected by the ordinance.

The Kane County Historic Preservation Plan was adopted in November 1989. It integrated preservation principles into the land planning process and established the following goals: 1) locate, designate, and protect the county`s most important historic and natural sites, districts, and landscapes; 2) maintain the elements of the landscape that contribute to the attractiveness and historic character of the suburbanizing urban fringe areas of the county; 3) retain as a working group those elements of the county`s farm landscape, such as farmsteads, fencerows, and cropland, that contribute to the aesthetics, historic character, and economy of agricultural areas; 4) maintain the historic character of the county`s rural towns and villages while encouraging their development as commercial and cultural centers; 5) improve the economy of Kane County by encouraging expenditures for restoration work, adaptively reusing buildings to improve local economies, and promoting tourism related to historic resources; and 6) foster public education and greater appreciation and understanding of historic and archeological resources, and public support for preservation in Kane County.

While all of the plan`s goals are important, the designation of historic landmarks and districts is the highest priority of the program. This calls for the most significant sites to be listed in the Kane County Register of Historic Places and protected by the preservation ordinance. Over the program`s 13-year history, a wide variety of landmarks have been listed in the Register, including township halls, farmsteads, cemeteries, church buildings, and Illinois` only locally designated historic district in an unincorporated area.

"That Darn Barn"

Because the county`s jurisdiction includes only the unincorporated areas of Kane County, and because agriculture is the primary land use in that area, the bulk of the county`s historic structures are, naturally, barns and other farmstead structures. The challenge of preserving these symbols of Kane County`s agricultural heritage is complicated by the fact that on working farms, older barns and outbuildings are expensive to maintain and have often been made obsolete by changing agricultural practices. Farmers with limited resources often find it hard to maintain such structures, and without routine maintenance, they decay over time and are eventually lost.

In responding to these challenges, the county, in partnership with the Kane County Farm Bureau, established "That Darn Barn," an awards program designed to recognize those who preserve historic farm buildings and to generate ideas on returning such structures to productivity. The program is modeled on the highly successful BARN AGAIN! Program, co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine.

Under Kane County`s program, a dilapidated barn was rehabilitated in 1992 to demonstrate that farm structures can be preserved and adapted for continued use in ways that maintain their historic character. The project culminated in the publication of That Darn Barn-A Facelift After 80 Years, which documents the rehabilitation project. In fall 1996 the program published a 1997 calendar featuring Kane County barns that are still in active agricultural use. While these publications have helped raise public awareness of the importance of preserving farm structures, the technical assistance that members of the Historic Preservation Commission and county staff provide to individual barn owners has probably been even more valuable.

Preservation in the Development Process

Historic preservation is not only discussed in the chapter of the 2020 Plan dealing with the county`s preservation pro-gram. It surfaces throughout the entire document, most notably in the chapters that discuss residential development, open space, and transportation. Concerning residential development, the plan calls for the preservation of existing historic, cultural, and visual landmarks as part of new housing developments, especially in the Critical Growth Area.

In the case of the Arbor Creek subdivision, in central Kane County, the Daniel Lincoln homestead was saved and incorporated into the development through the county`s subdivision approval process. The original 1846 brick section was preserved using the Illinois Property Tax Assessment Freeze Program and the homestead received a new, sympathetic addition. It now stands side-by-side with new homes in a rural neighborhood.

Preserving landmarks surrounded by changing land-use patterns sometimes requires adapting them for new uses. In planning the Fox Mill mixed-use development, the Finley-Johnson farmstead was saved as a result of the development approval process and incorporated into a community center complex. The new use is a tremendous success, with the addition of a well-designed clubhouse, and a swimming pool located where the barnyard once was. These and other projects not only result in the preservation of individual historic buildings, but of Kane County`s rural character in general, connecting new residents with the settlement and agricultural heritage of their communities.

Rustic Roads Program

Both the open space and transportation chapters of the 2020 plan call for the preservation of the natural and scenic features associated with Kane County`s rural character through the establishment of a Rustic Roads Program. In 2000 the county board amended the county`s preservation ordinance to establish a process for the nomination, designation, and protection of rustic roads much the same way as is done for local historic districts. The amendments detail a process through which Kane County roads and the properties adjacent to them may be designated and protected on the merits of their natural and scenic qualities. The overall objective of the program is to protect and enhance the county`s rural character while incorporating new development and transportation needs as subtly as possible.

Early in the designation process, the natural and scenic features of a "road corridor," as well as any historic structures, are inventoried as character-defining elements worth preserving. Depending on the context, such features may include arching tree canopies, rolling hills, expansive views across flat cropland, and water features such as streams and wetlands. Once a nominated area is determined to be eligible for designation under the program, property owners, local officials, and county development and transportation staff prepare a corridor management plan. The document provides a blueprint for pre-serving the road`s features while ensuring that safety and maintenance concerns are addressed. It also acts as a set of design guidelines for property owners, the road authority, and the preservation commission, which must consider the appropriateness of proposed changes within the corridor once the county board designates it. By establishing the Rustic Roads Program, Kane County is extending to natural and scenic resources the same level of protection its preservation ordinance has provided to historic buildings.

Farmland Protection Program

As effective as Kane County`s planning and regulatory initiatives have been, however, there remains no better way to protect property from inappropriate development than through ownership. In a recent survey conducted by the American Farmland Trust, over 85 percent of respondents from Kane and adjacent counties rated the protection of farmland as at least "somewhat important" and more than 50 percent rated protection as "very important." Furthermore, although it has not been asked of citizens, the survey noted that the average household is willing to support protection of this important resource through increased taxes.

Responding to public opinion, the Kane County Board recently strengthened its long-term commitment to protecting prime farmland from development with the adoption of an Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Program. Under the ordinance establishing the program, the county board is authorized to expend funds to either purchase farmland or else purchase the development rights in exchange for easements guaranteeing that the owners will keep the land in agricultural use in perpetuity. The ordinance created the Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Commission, which is responsible for general super-vision of the new program. The commission consists of nine voting members and two ex-officio members who are the chairs of Kane County`s Regional Planning and Historic Preservation commissions. They have adopted a program strategy that complements other county policies involving storm water management, historic preservation, and transportation planning, and established factors that will be considered when evaluating applications for land selection. Such factors include land use designation in the Kane County 2020 Land Resource Management Plan, soil productivity, cultural or historic value, the presence of significant natural features, and proximity to existing open space, Forest Preserve land, or other protected property. At a time when many family farmers are finding it difficult to resist pressure to sell their land for development, the Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Program provides a much-needed incentive to encourage farming, beyond agricultural zoning and state laws that provide limited protection for farming operations.


The strength of Kane County`s preservation and land use planning efforts is the underlying recognition that while change is certain, progress is not. Unfortunately there is no anti-sprawl pill. Where growth is poorly managed, its effects on our built and natural resources can be devastating. Kane County`s commitment to resource protection has proven to be ahead of its time in Illinois, and two important outcomes of this approach have been to minimize sprawl and protect our valuable agricultural base. By incorporating a conservation ethic throughout the 2020 Land Resource Management Plan - and by developing a variety of initiatives such as the Historic Preservation Plan, That Darn Barn, Rustic Roads, and Farmland Protection Programs - we rest better assured that the qualities that give Kane County its unique character will be preserved and protected even as growth continues.

Publication Date: Summer 2001


Author(s):Scott Berger

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