Piece Together A Parcel Pie

By Brent Denzin

Local government agencies can manage stormwater more efficiently and effectively by working together. Each entity has a “comparative advantage” i.e., the capacity to provide certain resources more efficiently, than other partner governments. When these advantages are combined, both entities win. Floods have no jurisdictional boundaries. Storm and flood waters demand land-use decisions on neighboring properties, in neighboring communities, and throughout watersheds. While this connection comes with unfair costs in handling upstream development, it also offers a unique and beneficial opportunity for net gains.  


Intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) provide the perfect framework for this common approach. Like floodwaters, IGAs erase jurisdictional boundaries. Parties to the IGA pool their authority, leverage their assets, and exploit their efficiencies to accomplish mutual goals. Given these common characteristics, IGAs and stormwater management are a natural fit. 

Yet, IGAs are woefully underutilized in stormwater management. Entities fail to effectively communicate and miss opportunities to combine resources. The benefits of cooperation are too often out of sight, out of mind. Like any undertaking, the most complex IGAs are created one step at a time. To help take the first step, consider the following roadmap:

1. Understand your authority.
A park district’s first step toward a win-win arrangement is to understand its legal authority. State laws typically promote only allow intergovernmental cooperation. A park district’s authority to use its resources and powers to benefit another governmental entity–and vice versa–is rooted in many state constitutions. In case the constitutional authority is overlooked, many legislatures reinforce the message with an intergovernmental cooperation statute.[1] This statute expressly authorizes governmental entities to exercise, combine, transfer, and enjoy jointly their mutual resources and powers. A park district’s first step toward a win-win arrangement is to understand the mechanism used to reach this goal. With an understanding of the intergovernmental agreement structure, entities can focus on the substance. 

2. Assess your needs and look to neighbors.
Too often, local governments base their plans on existing resources instead of optimal results. When faced with flood threats, cities sometimes assess existing resources and infrastructure within their jurisdiction to identify a response. When looking to improve resources, park districts often focus on bolstering current assets and with budgeted resources. Both approaches ignore a basic truth: The best solutions often lie outside the box.

To most effectively manage stormwater, communities may need to take actions that are beyond their existing capacity. Before rejecting the ideal approach, look to your neighbors. If you had unlimited access to all neighboring land and resources, how would you ideally manage stormwater? If a vision emerges, you may have the foundation of a future IGA.

3. Benefit from your park district’s comparative advantage.
A successful IGA is built on a simple concept: Use one’s comparative advantage. A park district may be able to solve a neighboring city’s stormwater problems cheaper and more efficiently than the city can. Conversely, the city likely has the budget to support park-district improvements and expansion. By working together, both entities gain far more than they give up. The mutually beneficial arrangement can take many forms–e.g., money for stormwater-easement rights; swapping one parcel of land for another; or agreeing to perform vital tasks for the other. 

Assess the park district’s properties in relation to the surrounding community and in the context of stormwater management. Once the district has identified a comparative advantage, approach the surrounding city (or village, county, etc.), and brainstorm possible win-win arrangements. Cities have broad authority to take action to manage stormwater and drainage. Cities have zoning authority to impose restrictions on land use in order to reduce flooding and promote general public health and welfare. Cities can fund stormwater management with utilities, taxes, and other revenue sources. Nevertheless, cities have practical limits that prevent effective stormwater management. 

Most notably, efficient stormwater management requires land, specifically land in key locations throughout the watershed. Depending on locations and resources, a park district may be in a position to accomplish the city’s goals far more efficiently. Often, districts own land in areas near bogs, wetlands, or other water bodies suitable for absorbing floodwaters. Moreover, parks are often placed strategically throughout a community to service a wide area. These small parks may provide the perfect outlet for cities to manage stormwater locally without relatively minor infrastructure investment.

Open-Minded To Open Space
Like most communities, the City of Naperville, Ill., was in search of a comprehensive solution to the flooding that pervaded the local Steeple Run Watershed. The city had the financial tools and legal authority to collect and detain stormwater to mitigate flooding. But the city needed a place to put the water. Although the city owned and controlled open spaces, none were in strategic locations within the watershed. The city could send the water to outfalls and the river, but that option is increasingly expensive and degrades natural resources.

Fortunately, the Naperville Park District owned land–the Country Commons Park and Old Plank Park–that would serve the city’s goals. Together, the district and city worked out an IGA to provide a mutual benefit.

In 2009, the city and park district finalized an IGA giving the district a new park with less flooding, and upgrading and relocating playground equipment at other area parks. In return, the city took title to district property to use for periodic stormwater detention, and gained easement rights on another, strategically located district parcel. In the end, both parties reached their goal and furthered their mission. Land was put into more efficient use, and the community as a whole benefited.

Sharing Space
In 2008, Champaign County, the city of Urbana, and the Urbana Park District all had visions for eastern Urbana.  The county was building a new nursing home; the park district was looking for additional athletic fields to complement facilities at the newly-constructed Weaver Park; and the city was working to address flooding problems due to a lack of infrastructure in two area subdivisions. 

Using an IGA, the county, city, and park district linked their proposed developments, using some areas for shared parking, the park district’s wetland area for area stormwater control, and city and county property for expanded park-district use. The nursing home benefited from close proximity to Weaver Park, and use of the land for drainage. The city similarly gained some stormwater-management area in the park’s existing wetlands. Finally, the park district gained permission to use county and city land for expanded recreational use and new bike paths.

Move With The Current
Without cooperation from neighbors, community efforts to address flooding are moving against the current. To effectively address common stormwater threats, communities need to act as one and utilize joint resources efficiently to reduce stormwater. IGAs provide an excellent mechanism to structure a cooperative approach.

To build a successful IGA, a park district must start by looking in the mirror. What do you have that others may need? Stormwater management offers a logical starting point. With this understanding of a comparative advantage in mind, approach the surrounding city, county, or school district, and discuss ways to pool and leverage resources.  

Brent Denzin is an attorney for Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, Dicianni & Krafthefer, P.C. in Chicago, Ill. Reach him at bdenzin@ancelglink.com.


[1] Illinois Intergovernmental Cooperation Act. 5 ILCS 200/1 et. seq..