Leaf-burning could soon be an endangered practice in Lake County

Editor's note: Hannah Mulroy, the county's interim sustainability program manager, was misidentified in earlier versions of this story.

Long a target of environmentalists and people with breathing issues, leaf-burning in unincorporated areas of Lake County may be headed to the trash pile.

For the first time in years, officials are investigating whether to adopt countywide restrictions or an outright ban on the burning of fallen leaves and other landscaping debris.

Members of the county board's energy and environment committee debated the issue Wednesday at the central permit facility in Libertyville.

Republican and Democratic members of the committee supported the idea of restricting the practice. But they also stressed the need to go slowly and study the issue before floating a proposal.

"This is a health issue," Libertyville Democrat Jennifer Clark said. "I do want us to move on it."

Burning leaves is a traditionally autumnal procedure for eliminating dead leaves in some residential areas, particularly those that are rural and feature homes on large properties.

Proponents of the practice have said other options - bagging leaves, raking them to the curb or hiring a landscaping service to haul them away - are too time-consuming or costly.

But leaf-burning critics say the smoke contains tiny particles that pollute the air, get into our lungs and can cause coughing, wheezing and other breathing issues.

Leaf smoke also hurts the environment and can create road hazards, critics have said.

Under the county's current ordinances, most people who live in unincorporated areas can burn leaves and other yard waste on their properties. Some limitations were enacted in 2011 for designated areas near Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School, after a student complained about smoke.

Nearly all of the municipalities in Lake County ban or restrict burning leaves. Some restrict the times, days or months leaves can be burned.

The practice is prohibited in unincorporated areas of DuPage County and restricted in McHenry County, too.

Hannah Mulroy, the county's interim sustainability program manager, spoke to the energy and environment committee about the issue Wednesday. A key component, she said, would be giving residents an alternative for leaf removal, such as yard waste pickup.

Only three of Lake County's 18 townships offer that service now: Lake Villa, Warren and Ela. But at least one other township, Avon, has plans to do so.

Mulroy suggested there are two options for the committee, and the greater board, to consider: a ban or restrictions.

If the board pursues a ban, it should look at developing a contract with a waste hauler for countywide yard-waste removal, Mulroy said.

If the board pursues restrictions, it could expand and amend the current rules for the designated areas around Stevenson High, Mulroy said.

The board last debated a countywide ban on leaf-burning in 1999. The proposal wasn't successful.

A half-dozen audience members spoke to the committee about the issue Wednesday. Most favored restricting or banning leaf burning.

"(It) threatens the health and safety of those around it," Grant Township resident Rob Bryson said.

Fremont Township resident Glenn Garamoni opposes a ban. He talked of the sheer weight of leaves and other yard debris and said not burning yard waste could turn a property into a jungle.

None of the committee members opposed pursuing a ban or restrictions.

Antioch Republican Linda Pedersen voiced support for restricting leaf burning, even though many of her constituents live on large, rural properties and would be affected by such rules.

Thorough research and planning is critical to convincing residents that restricting leaf burning is a good idea, she said.

"I want to be able to say that we've really done our homework on this," she said.

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