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Buy land before it's too costly, study says
Preservation agencies advised to act quickly

Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by William Presecky

Even though they have banked more than 170,000 acres of public open space, the region's land preservation agencies should buy more land before rapid growth puts its price out of reach, warns a report to be released Wednesday.

That recommendation by the decadesold Openlands Project is included in its comparison of the region's six forest preserve districts and one conservation district. Combined, the districts serve more than 8 million people in Cook, DuPage, Will, Kane, Lake, Kendall and McHenry Counties.

"The message [to the districts] is kind of `keep doing what you're doing,'" said Openlands deputy director Joyce O'Keefe. "It's not time to stop. There's much more to go.

"Without the forest preserves, the region would be a totally different kind of place, and I don't think we'd want to live here, frankly," she said.

The Chicago-based non-profit organization's report highlights the success the districts have had in buying, restoring and preserving open space. But land acquisition, especially in rapidly developing counties such as Kendall, Kane and Will, must be a top priority, the report said.

"Opportunities to buy land are disappearing fast, and the cost of land continues to rise. All districts face pressure to acquire land before it is lost forever to development," the report cautions.

To prevent that, it recommends that each of the districts "set a specific goal for the amount of land they plan to acquire over both the short-and long-term."

The two-year report, funded with a $200,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, targets "policymakers first and foremost, but also all the people that care about conservation," O'Keefe said.

"We certainly want the public to realize how critically important the forest preserve land is and why they should support it. We also see this [report] being directed to state policymakers, and federal for that matter, that these forest preserve lands are so important to this region and to the state," she said.

The complete text of the report is being posted Wednesday on the organization's Web site at www.openlands.org.

It offers a comparative analysis of the history, governance, finances and operations of the McHenry County Conservation District and the Forest Preserve Districts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Will and Kendall Counties.

In Cook County, for example, the report recommends the Forest Preserve District purchase land up to its statutory maximum of 75,000 acres, from the current 68,303 acres.

Cook has the largest amount of protected land, followed by Lake (25,190), DuPage (24,718), McHenry (20,020), Kane (14,683) and Kendall (1,080). The total holdings for all seven districts combined, as of April, when the study was concluded, was 170,877 acres, the report said.

When Cook County began buying forest preserve land in 1916, it paid as little as $70 an acre to establish its first preserve. But "without additional funding sources, it will be difficult" for Cook to even reach the 75,000 acres it is allowed by state law, according to the report.

Money is a major issue for all the districts. Recent open-space purchases in a nearly built-out DuPage County have been averaging between $78,000 and $82,000 an acre.

Conversely, in fast-growing Kane County, the average price of land purchased by the Forest Preserve District after a $70 million bond sale in 1999 was less than $20,000 an acre, said district President John Hoscheit.

Roughly 5,000 acres were acquired with the bond proceeds compared with a projected 2,500 acres from the $75 million bond sale approved by Kane voters in April 2005, he said.

"It would not be inaccurate to state that the per-acre price is going to be roughly twice now than it was before," he said.

"Even the least expensive property has gone up significantly" since the 1999 referendum.

"That's the same as in Will County," O'Keefe said.


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