Jacquenette Cottrell is scared, drained, and damn near bankrupt.

For six years, she helped bankroll a lawsuit to stop construction of a Love’s Travel Stop in the middle of her neighborhood in Joliet, the third-largest city in Illinois. The area in question isn’t in the city limits, but an unincorporated area on the east side at the intersection of Briggs Street and Interstate 80, which is near New Lenox Road, where Cottrell’s childhood home is.

When her mother passed away in 2015, Cottrell became the new owner of the home. She’s been trying to protect it from developers ever since 2018. And she’s not the only resident fighting to keep their home. She and others are also at odds with officials who they say aren’t keeping their best interests at heart. More than 300 households would be affected by the proposed project, according to Cottrell.

Though majority Black, the neighborhood is racially diverse and made up mostly of retirees. They describe the area as peaceful and quiet, with the exception of the traffic congestion from Interstate 80. Already, the local fire department and other emergency services are blocked by traffic on the narrow road.

The clash between Joliet homeowners, local officials, and big businesses is a microcosm of a larger issue around land loss and displacement due to development, particularly in Black communities where elders live. Whether it’s in the South, West, or East, residents are suing, or speaking out, against developers from encroaching on their land.

In Joliet, where 16% of the population is Black, Love’s executives bought land near the residents’ homes for a proposed travel center that would include restrooms; a fueling station for cars, RVs, and trucks; a dog park; and restaurants on a 7.8-acre parcel. The City Council in a 5-3 vote approved a tax incentive package that provides a 40% rebate from city sales taxes on gas to allow Love’s to recoup $2.5 million to expand water and sewer lines to the truck stop, according to The Herald-News.

The 7.8-acre parcel wasn’t enough.

A portrait of Jacquenette Cottrell.
Jacquenette Cottrell has spent the past six years trying to protect her home outside Joliet, Illinois, from developers. (Courtesy of Jacquenette Cottrell)

The company needed at least 15 more acres to ensure the property would be contiguous, or connected, to the city. To do that, they needed residents to agree to have their land annexed into the city or persuade them to sell. Many refused the offers because they didn’t “want to sell out their neighbors,” they told Worldacad. Cottrell contends the Black residents received lower offers than white residents.

While annexation offered the community representation, it came with a price: an increase in property taxes, devaluation of their homes, and potential health challenges from the diesel fumes from trucks and noise and air pollution.

They had a few months to organize.

They created a grassroots coalition, Neighbors Opposed to Annexation of Parcels, or NOAP, which started out with about 45 members, but now there’s fewer than 10 due to many deaths, Cottrell said. They also created a petition opposing the project, and packed City Hall meetings to voice their concerns. Even the former fire chief and former City Council members opposed the project.

But, it didn’t matter.

In a 6-3 vote, the Joliet City Council approved a rezoning and annexation request in October 2018 to allow Love’s — which currently has 34 locations in Illinois and more than 500 nationwide — to proceed. Where city officials saw an opportunity to create jobs and improve tax revenues, residents saw a dismissal of their public safety concerns and quality of life.

Two months later, the residents sued Joliet and Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores Inc., which halted the development. They challenged the validity of the contiguous strip and the annexation of their properties into the city.

In 2023, a Will County trial court judge ruled against the residents, stating that annexation is a natural expansion of the city’s boundaries. NOAP filed an appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court. They held a hearing last month.

Now, they await the court’s decision.

Attorneys for NOAP and Love’s declined a request for comment due to pending litigation. The attorney for the city of Joliet did not respond to a request for comment.

However, a spokesperson for Love’s emailed a statement to Worldacad that the company conducted a traffic study in partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation and developed an approved traffic plan that will be implemented before the location opens.

“We take residents’ concerns seriously and partner with the community and officials early on to address questions,” the statement said. “Love’s attended several community meetings in Joliet where our real estate team addressed resident questions.”

The lengths gone to secure a project win

At a City Hall meeting in August 2018, the developer presented a traffic study that estimated the project could draw 600 trucks and 2,400 cars per day, the Chicago Tribune reported. Despite concerns, the developers said the project would improve roadway safety and traffic flow because they planned to widen roads, add lanes to Briggs Street and New Lenox Road, and upgrade signals.

Love’s touted the travel center adding 50 to 75 jobs, allowing team members to select a local nonprofit to donate $5,000, and allocate an annual budget for giving, the spokesperson told Worldacad via email. They also added that employees and team members will come together to raise money for the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, which serves the community of Joliet.

“The project is an economic boost to the East Side and it will help keep business in Joliet that otherwise is being leaked out of our city and going to New Lenox or unincorporated Joliet,” Bob O’Dekirk, a former mayor who voted in favor of the project, told Herald-News.

Of the City Council members at the time, the only two Black members and one white member voted against the project. One of the former Black officials was Terry Morris, who served for 20 years.

“I am a supporter of bringing new development and jobs and all those things into the city, but I think it has to be the right location,” Morris said.

Michael Turk, the lone white council member who voted against the project, said he wanted to make sure residents were heard.

“I’ve always felt that the city of Joliet needs to be a good neighbor to those people who live right outside our boundaries,” Turk said in a phone call. “Those people go to church in Joliet. They go to the stores in Joliet. They actually help support the city, and a project like that, it’s going to change their way of life pretty drastically, and you need to listen and hear their concerns.”

With fierce opposition, some questioned why Love’s didn’t relocate elsewhere. Many, including Warren Dorris, a pastor and former City Council member, say it’s because the proposed location for the travel center is five minutes away from CenterPoint Intermodal Center, the largest inland port in the nation.

“It’s simply about dollars and cents,” Dorris told Worldacad. “They want to be right on it and the other major interchanges on this end.”

Read More: America’s largest inland port is running out of water

At issue in the suit and the project is the connection of the Love’s property to Dorris’ property, which was annexed into the city in the ’90s. The 66 feet of distance makes him the only homeowner tied to the city from the unincorporated community. Dorris is the main plaintiff in the lawsuit and lives next door to Cottrell off of New Lenox Road.

Rick Shuffield, former vice president of real estate and development for Love’s, purchased property at 1311 New Lenox Road at an auction because it would be connected to the city and adjoins the 7.8-acre parcel, according to a brief filed on behalf of the Love’s. The property was annexed into the city and rezoned to residential and business.

Shuffield’s property overlapped south of Dorris’ property.

Dorris and NOAP argued Love’s property was connected to the city only by 19.5 feet, which isn’t consistent with previous court decisions on the definition of contiguous. However, the trial court judge deemed the 19.5 feet substantial.

Dorris says Love’s offered him $100,000 — not to be annexed into the city, but to persuade others to get on board.

“I have it in writing, where they wanted to lease work [to me] to try to get the annexations done. [They would give me] $20,000 when I got the first one to agree to this,” Dorris said. “I’m a pastor. I’m [not] gonna sacrifice my [nonprofit] status as a church, so you can funnel money from Love’s to me to say that I will sell out my neighbors. Absolutely ludicrous.”

DiAnn and Steve Matter, a married couple who has lived in unincorporated Joliet for more than 30 years, said Love’s officials also tried to bribe them. They didn’t budge.

“They told us once we sign the contract, we get $10,000. Six months later, we get another $40,000. If nobody contested it, the next year, we would get $50,000,” DiAnn said in a phone call.

The Matters, along with several other residents Worldacad spoke to, said they’d rather have a grocery store in their community than a truck stop, which would help surrounding communities. They travel at least 20 minutes to get to one.

“We can’t even vote for the politicians that are making all these decisions because we’re unincorporated, yet they come in here and dictate to us what they’re going to do to us,” Steve said. “We can’t vote them out of office. You're helpless, in tears. The best you can do is sue them, and it’s very expensive to hire attorneys and all that stuff to make it happen.”

More developments crushing the city

As NOAP awaits the state Court of Appeals ruling, residents on the north side of Joliet, where most white citizens live, are also facing a proposed development. In 2020, a group of community members formed Stop NorthPoint to stop the construction of a 4,000-acre warehouse intermodal facility in Joliet by NorthPoint Development, the Southland Journal reported.

The project would bring in 70,000 vehicles per day, which would deteriorate the roads, damage a local veterans cemetery, and drain 1.5 million gallons of water from the city’s water supply. Additionally, it would cause a financial burden on residents in Joliet and beyond — such as Manhattan, Elwood, and across central Will County — to maintain the upkeep of roads and sewers and bring in additional police and fire services.

The group sued. The Will County Circuit Court dismissed the suit. However, the state’s Appellate Court reversed the ruling and remanded it back to the lower court earlier this year.

“Plaintiffs’ prospective nuisance allegations are well grounded upon a highly probable state of facts derived from defendants’ annexation agreement. … When viewed alongside plaintiffs’ allegations, the agreement substantiates the threat of a real and immediate danger,” the ruling stated. “Although the NorthPoint Development will take years to complete, there is no reason plaintiffs should wait until full build-out to seek an injunction.”

While the NorthPoint ruling is promising, Cottrell and others are struggling to keep up with legal fees.

She and her neighbors have had to take out loans just to pay for legal fees, in spite of creating a GoFundMe. Cottrell reached out to national news outlets, civil rights organizations, state representatives, and celebrities, but has minimal support, she said.

Depending on how the court rules, it may not be enough to continue fighting.

“Love’s figured the people in the neighborhood didn’t have the money. You know what the incomes are once people retire. They make no more than $19,000,” Cottrell said. “People are dying. They figure they’re gonna die with this. They’re stressed and they need help. It’s either I pay this lawyer or I buy my medicine. It’s either or. That’s how dire it is.”

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice