“Why is the traffic stopped?”

“Is that a cop car?”

“Yeah, there must’ve been an accident.”

“No, he’s directing traffic. They’re all waiting to get in the parking lot! The gym’s going to be packed!”

“He’s not letting anyone else in,” Mary says, deftly turning the minivan around in the freezing rain. She pulls off onto the shoulder, and the three of us—Mary Hitchcock, battle-weary veteran of the Rockford school wars; Mark Dahlgren, convicted tree-hugger, church organist, and unpaid mercenary in the fight for justice; and myself—dart across the road and slog through the puddles, ice, and snow in the parking lot. With each step, our little band grows; by the time we reach the door, we have to wait in line to be admitted to the ultra-modern, Columbine-style lobby of Roscoe Middle School. (A balcony overlooks a large public area with a stage at one end and only two exits; fish in a barrel, I think to myself.)

We tromp down the stairs, through the barrel, and into the hall outside the gym. After another wait to get inside, we’re finally through the doors. “How many people do you think are here?” Mark asks.

“I dunno. Ask that cop what the capacity is.”

The bleachers seat 900. Almost every spot is full, and schoolkids are setting up folding chairs on the edge of the court. We split up. Mark and Mary want to be close to the floor so they can wave their homemade signs; I join Chronicles‘ art director, Ward Sterett, and assistant editor, Aaron Wolf, down at the other end of the gym. A hush falls over the crowd; we take our seats as the players assemble on the court. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to thank you all for coming here tonight to discuss the proposed Perryville Road extension.”

Back in my hometown in Michigan, only a basketball game would have made over 900 people turn out on one of the worst nights of one of the worst winters in recent memory. Here in Winnebago County, however, roads are serious business, as Tom and Jan Ditzler can attest (see “For Keeps! A Christian Defense of Property,” Views, May).

In the last days of December, just as the dust of the Ditzler land grab had begun to settle, Winnebago County Board Chairman Kristine O’Rourke Cohn announced that the county intended to extend Perryville Road, which currently ends at Illinois 173 just northeast of Rockford, all the way to the Wisconsin state line. The project is estimated to cost $34 million and to take several years to complete; the county’s yearly road budget, however, is only about $3.5 million.

This discrepancy was only one of the red flags that had drawn so many people out on such a night. Every one of the five proposed routes would require the taking of at least one home, and three of them would demand the leveling of ten homes. (Two of those would also take a church.) Moreover, the Perryville extension would be the fourth major north-south road within a mile and a half, including the I-90 tollway and two Illinois highways. And, finally, considerable land along the routes is owned by large donors to local political campaigns, including William Charles Investments (parent company of local public-works contractor Rockford Blacktop) and Sunil Puri, the Bombay-born head of First Rockford Group, a major real-estate development company in Northern Illinois.

Ward, Aaron, and I are sitting behind Jan Weldon. She and her husband. Bill, live on a farm that has been in his family for over 150 years. The Perryville extension would divide it in two; the road would be only a stone’s throw away from their old stone farmhouse.

Most of the meeting goes as expected: Citizens ask specific, thoughtful questions about how the construction will be funded, what the environmental impact will be (all of the routes pass over creeks or through wetlands), and whether the county will conduct a cost-benefit analysis; county officials (with the notable exceptions of board members Pete MacKay, Polly Berg, and Larry Bauer) do their best to evade, mislead, and redirect. As Chairman Cohn explains it, the question is not whether Perryville will connect Rockford to Wisconsin, but which route it will take. She assures us that she desperately desires our input, but we have to accept the fact that the Perryville extension has been on the county’s books for 40 years, and no one is going to stop it.

But then somebody does. As the meeting draws to a close, Tom Hawes, the supervisor of Roscoe Township (which would be divided down the middle by the Perryville extension), takes the microphone. “I’ve been authorized by the Township Board of Trustees to announce that Roscoe Township will not allow the Perryville extension to cross the Stone Bridge Trail.” There is a scattering of applause; everyone recognizes that the township board is taking a courageous stance, though most of us assume it’s a futile gesture. We only catch on as we start to leave the gym.

“Look at this map!”

“What am I supposed to see?”

“Don’t you get it? All five of the routes cross the trail! They’ve stopped the road!”

We can’t believe that it’s all over; folks who go up against the Winnebago County government aren’t used to winning their battles so easily. But out in the hall, I meet David Kurlinkus, the lawyer for Roscoe Township. He explains that the Stone Bridge Trail is protected by multiple layers of government: It was built on top of an abandoned railroad bed, so the federal government controls the railroad right-of-way; the Natural Land Institute, a Rockford-based conservation organization, owns an easement along the trail, and even if they were willing to give it up (which they aren’t), they would need the permission of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the governor; and Roscoe Township owns the actual trail, and not a single trustee is willing to sell the land to the county. Most importantly, die count) can only use eminent domain against private citizens, not against mother municipality.

While it has been gratifying to see 900 people standing in opposition to a big-government boondoggle, the crowd is not the reason we won tonight. The Perryville extension is dead because Tom Hawes and the Roscoe Township Board of Trustees saw it coming seven years ago, and they calmly, quietly, and deliberately laid the groundwork (quite literally) to stop it. Think about that the next time you decide not to vote because “it’s only a local election.”

In each of the cases I mentioned in my View last month—the Ditzler and Hamberlin properties, the Torres Market—the people involved never had a chance to keep their property, because there was no governmental body that could intervene on their behalf. You can have right on your side; you can have broad popular support; but unless you can translate that into political power, you’re going to lose. Even the courts offer little protection: In eminent-domain cases today, government is usually treated as the de facto owner of your land. In order to win, you have to prove to a government-funded judge that you need it more than the government does.

The token Republican columnist at the local Gannet paper has been crusading for years to abolish township government in Illinois in the name of “efficiency.” He’s right: Removing that layer of government—the layer that is the least expensive, least intrusive, and closest to the people, even though the people are often unaware of it—would make other layers of government more efficient. Without township government. Chairman Cohn would probably be perched on top of a bulldozer tomorrow, rather than sitting in her office, trying to figure out how her well-laid plans went so far astray.

Out in the hall, the victorious organizers are bracing for the coming round of name-calling: “They’re going to say this is just another case of NIMBY.” Of course it is, but what’s wrong with that? What kind of society would we live in if no one ever said, “Not in my back yard”? You want to run a road through my ancestral land? Sure, go right ahead. Have my house while you’re at it. Don’t bother even offering me fair-market value; just take mv property now, and we’ll settle up later.

The only problem with NIMBY is that it never seems to extend beyond our respective back yards. You say you want to put a prison in southeastern Winnebago County? Sounds good; I live in downtown Rockford, so it won’t affect me. You want to demolish Henry Hamberlin’s home to put up a school on the west side of Rockford? That’s fine; I live on the east side, and my kids aren’t in public school anyway. Why should I care that Chairman Colin wants to run a road through Tom Ditzler’s farm? He lives down in the southwest part of the county; I live up in Roscoe Township.

Last year, longtime county board member (and Chronicles subscriber) Pete MacKay challenged Chairman Cohn in the Republican primary. One of his chief campaign promises was to stop the extension of Perryville Road (which, at that time, had not yet reached Illinois 173). He knew he would have a tough time beating Cohn in the city of Rockford; he was confident, however, that he could make up for that with a fairly wide margin of victory in the northern part of the county. But on election night, he polled worse in the northern part of the county than anywhere else, and the deciding factor seems to have been his opposition to the Perryville extension. Many Roscoe Township residents—including some of the people who are here tonight—wanted Perryville to run up to Illinois 173 so that they could have more convenient access to the strip mails and chain restaurants on Rockford’s far east side. They don’t mind driving through what used to be other people’s back yards; they just don’t want other people driving through theirs. In the long run, however, we’re only going to rein in government if we couple NIMBY with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“Where were all these people when we were fighting our battles down in Rockford?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps now they’ll begin to understand that we may be fighting on a different front, but it’s all the same war.”

On the way out, we stop to talk to Tom and Jan Ditzler, who have come to the opposite end of the county to stand up for hundreds of people who didn’t stand up for them. It’s a bittersweet reunion for the Ditzlers and Mark Dahlgren; the last time they saw him, he was being hauled off to the county jail for trying to prevent county workers from cutting down a tree on the land they had seized from the Ditzlers.

“Have you had your court date?” Jan asks.

“Oh, yes.”

“When are you going to stop out and see us? We’ve missed you.”

“Well, the trouble is, they gave me a year’s probation, and there are two terms. I can’t come within 300 yards of my arresting officer, and I can’t set foot on your property.”

“You mean you can’t go on the property that the county took.”

“No, ma’am, I can’t go on your property. The document they made me sign listed your address; it didn’t mention the property where they’re putting in the road.”

“WHAT? First, they take over half of our property with out even paying us for it, and now they’re telling us who we can and can’t invite on the land they let us keep? They can’t do that.”

“Well, they did, ma’am. They most certainly did. That’s what they call ‘justice’ here in Winnebago County.”

We say our goodbyes and head back out into the cold winter’s night. This battle may be over, but there are many more to come before a new spring arrives here in Rockford.