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Private landowners nibble away at Forest Preserves

Thursday, February 03, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

For years, those who own land near Cook County Forest Preserves have been able to stake a claim to some of the woods -- without anyone saying much.

A foot here, an acre there, maybe a chopped tree or two, a horse trail, even baseball fields have been built on district lands.

On Wednesday, officials identified the 11 worst encroachments on district lands, saying there are dozens of others who improperly claimed public land as their own.

Some put fences and locks around the land, while others nailed "No Trespassing" signs on trees.

Officials didn't say how it could go unnoticed for years that park and school districts had built baseball fields in forest preserves, or that private businesses had mowed down trees and set up shop on district land. But spokesman Steve Mayberry said, "We're taking care of it now."

Those who've taken advantage of the district's lack of oversight could wind up in court unless they give back the land.

"They've chopped down our trees, mowed into our property, put children's play sets on our property -- but the citizens paid for that property," said P.K. Parker, district real estate administrator.

District Supt. Steve Bylina said the 11 cases identified Wednesday in aerial and ground photos pose "the most extreme liability to the preserves," adding "it's high time we address" them.

Knew for 40 years

Park, school and village districts in Barrington, Chicago Heights, Lyons, Morton Grove, Steger, Riverside and Bloom Township were cited, as were Eden Lanes Bowling Alley, Riverdale Marina and LaRamuda Stables.

Riverside-Brookfield High School principal Jack Baldermann was surprised to hear of the district's suddenly firm stance on land use around their campus and the Brookfield Zoo -- controlled by the district -- given the cordial relationship they've had. Their baseball schedule is always reviewed by zoo officials, to compare planned home games to high zoo visit days -- and officials said agreements are easy to reach.

"We know it's Forest Preserve property," Baldermann said. "But we've used those ball fields probably 40 years or longer."

Riverdale Marina officials did not return calls, but district officials said the damage there and the land grab was perhaps most egregious, including the uprooting of trees, signs preventing anyone from entering and sale of boats and cars on district property.

Commissioner Mike Quigley has been vocal about focusing more on encroachments, and he praised the report. District officials insisted nothing prompted the initiative and said it will remain ongoing.

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