WOOD RIVER - A proposal to subdivide 10 acres from Belk Park in Wood River, potentially for development of a wedding venue, was tabled at the Planning Commission public hearing on Thursday night. However, the City Council could technically still move the item forward without their recommendation at the council’s next meeting on August 7.
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The hearing, which lasted over two hours, saw more members of the public attend than many commission members said they had ever seen. In total, 17 members of the public spoke out against the proposal, while two spoke in favor.
Supporters cited opportunities for economic growth, development, and an expanded tax base for the city. Critics said the proposal would be an improper use of land donated in Robert E. Belk’s will and voiced concerns about losing greenspace, increased traffic, and much more, recalling fond memories of time spent in the park.
Madison County Treasurer Chris Slusser said several Madison County mayors would love an opportunity like this to come to their cities.
“I talked to a lot of the mayors around the county, and they would all be doing cartwheels to get a project like this in their city,” Slusser said. “The more we focus on economic development, the more we expand our tax base, and that allows for lesser reliance on raising taxes on individual homeowners.”
One member of the commission suggested putting the item on a binding referendum for the citizens to vote on, rather than giving the City Council complete authority over its approval. Several citizens voiced their support for referendums, both on the subdivision of the land and the potential sale of that land if it were to be subdivided.
Resident Sara Sladek noted that Belk died in 1951, meaning this November would mark 72 years since his passing. She said this proposal would go against the intention laid out in his will for the land to be a public park, and noted that while the developers were absent from the meeting, the community showed up in droves.
“Where are the developers that want to do this? Why are they not here tonight?” Sladek asked. “They should come to hear what the citizens of this town think about this. They’re coming into our town and wanting our property, but yet they don’t think enough to come to this meeting?
“You can see by the number of people here tonight, people are interested. People are standing up, saying, ‘No, you cannot come into our town, you cannot cherry pick what you want.’”
James Page of East Alton said he actually happens to own 57 acres of land adjacent to Belk Park Golf Course which is for sale and “begging for something to be done with it.” He said he wasn’t necessarily there to make a sales pitch, but believes his land might offer a possible solution to the issue.
Resident Bill Rogers said Belk Park was “willed to the city to be used as a park - nothing else.” He added that the city could potentially face legal consequences for violating the terms of Belk’s will.
“Leave the park alone. It was willed to the city as a park and the city accepted it on those terms,” he said. “It’s time the city lived up to their agreements and stopped trying to weasel their way out of them at every opportunity.”
Ultimately, commission members decided that after hearing so much public testimony both for and against, most of them did not feel comfortable formally making a recommendation until they’ve had time to think, discuss, and gather more information. The motion to table the item was approved 7-1.
The proposal is still set to be voted on by the Wood River City Council, which meets next on August 7. Whether or not they move forward on this item without the Planning Commission’s recommendation remains to be seen, but stay tuned to Riverbender.com for updates as they become available.
A full recording of the Planning Commission hearing can be watched at the top of this story or on the Riverbender.com Facebook page.
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