Location: South Elgin, Illinois

Highlighted Element: 422.a. Open Space Preservation (OSP) & 422.c. Natural Functions Open Space (NFOS)

Point of Contact: Paul Kruse, CFM, Superintendent of Building & Code Enforcement, Village of South Elgin, IL

South Elgin is a part of Kane County, Illinois, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. It's a small community of 7.16 mi2 with a population of 22,365 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). The Fox River cuts through the eastern portion of the village. Most of South Elgin was developed in the last 25 years after its first flood insurance study had been performed.

South Elgin Dam. Photo courtesy of South Elgin, IL.

The South Elgin Board of Trustees recognized placing people and property in harm's way was not sustainable. So for the past 25 years, officials have worked with developers to ensure project needs are met, while also preserving the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) for natural beneficial functions, open space and recreational uses. The board encouraged staff to actively pursue opportunities to buyout existing structures when on the open market.

An exemplary way South Elgin has succeeded in the CRS program is by following recommendations set by pre-existing studies and ordinances. Illinois and the Illinois Association of Floodplain and Stormwater Managers (IAFSM) laid the groundwork for South Elgin's success through years of stormwater management work. The village board decided early on to follow the law and best practices by not allowing new structures to be built in the floodway. For example, Kane County adopted higher regulatory standards, keeping new structures and fill out of the regulatory floodway and the Kane County Stormwater Ordinance prohibits the repair, replacement or reconstruction of a substantially damaged building within the SFHA.

Did you know you the CRS program allows communities to earn bonus points for preserving or restoring open spaces to their natural condition? Check out the Green Guide profiles of elements 422.a. Open Space Preservation and 422.c. Natural Functions Open Space to learn more.

South Elgin partnered with Kane County to use hazard mitigation funds to buyout three pre-FIRM houses. The village also purchased several other properties using local funding. The new open space created from the buyouts provided a cushion to surrounding properties during the last flooding event, which reduced losses. Once the board saw fewer emergency management resources were required due to increased open space, it renewed their desire to keep more land as open space and buyout property as often as possible.

South Elgin officials said that usually the only access it has to federal funding is by partnering with Kane County. Kane County entered into an agreement with Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) to purchase severe repetitive loss properties within the floodway with Kane County to take ownership and maintenance responsibilities as well as matching funds for in-kind services such as demolition, site restoration and asbestos removal.

South Elgin currently has 237 acres of open space within its SFHA. GIS mapping is an important factor in getting credit for this element. Paul Kruse, South Elgin's superintendent of building and code enforcement, said, "As important as the amount of open space is, being able to show where the land is and that it exists is equally important when it comes to getting CRS credit."

Village of South Elgin Impact Adjustment Map. Courtesy of South Elgin, IL.

While South Elgin does seek to buy properties in the floodplain, most of its open space is acquired by donations from developers following requirements in the Subdivision Ordinance. This property is not "high and dry," and therefore not suitable for development as specified in the ordinance, so the developer reserves the land as natural open space. The village is in the process of adopting an ordinance incentivizing the purchase and demolition of market value structures within the floodway in order to satisfy required open space donation requirements. These donations mean there is minimal upfront capital cost to the village, and the only maintenance required is mowing and occasional controlled burns when necessary. Any maintenance of newly acquired land is bundled into the existing maintenance costs so that there is very little cost to the village. Not only are the costs associated with OSP and NFOS minimal, Kruse said  first responders are now free to help others in a time of crisis.

Walking path through natural area. Courtesy of South Elgin, IL.

There are also many environmental benefits associated with OSP and NFOS. Open space provides for active and passive recreational opportunities. Property developers often put bike and walking paths into the open space on their land in addition to the land they donate to the village. Naturalized open space provides a buffer to waterways using engineered plantings to maximize the cleaning and cooling the runoff. Surrounding properties, and the general public, have a natural open area to use and enjoy. Kruse said, "Nature is the most challenging part of managing open space. If only the 'wild' animals and birds would leave the open space alone, then the naturalized open space would be much easier to maintain in a natural state."

Best practices shared by this community:

  1. Mitigation takes time!  It may take several decades to make a significant reduction in at-risk properties.
  2. If possible, adopt higher regulatory standards associated with new development to ensure it is constructed outside of the SFHA.
  3. Just don't build in the floodplain! It's easier to prevent damage by keeping properties out of the floodplain in the first place than having to pay for buyouts later.
  4. Take advantage of working with larger communities. They can offer resources, guidance, best practices and policy measures that can be adopted at the local level.
  5. GIS mapping is very important in this activity. It is just as important as the amount of open space.

Through South Elgin's open space preservation, natural functions open space and other efforts, the village has reached a Class 5 rating in the CRS. This resulted in a 25% reduction in the cost of flood insurance for policyholders.