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Plant seeks swap to expand
Riverdale steel firm eyes county-owned forestland for its own

Thursday, June 09, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Stanley Ziemba

Having slammed the door 10 years ago on a Riverdale steel plant's proposal to trade some of its land for county-owned woodlands, Cook County Forest Preserve District officials again are being asked to consider a land swap to allow the plant to expand.

At issue is whether the district should hold fast to its policy of refusing to part with any of its 68,000 acres or whether the need for jobs in the economically depressed south suburbs warrants an exception.

Mittal Steel USA wants to trade 31 acres it owns along the Little Calumet River, south of 127th Street in Chicago, for 21 acres of the Whistler Woods Forest Preserve adjacent to its Riverdale plant at 134th and Halsted Streets.

The swap would increase Forest Preserve District holdings by 10 acres and enable Mittal to construct a $200 million addition that would add at least 75 jobs to its 250-employee workforce at the plant, officials say.

"It's a terrific deal," said Riverdale Mayor Zenovia Evans. "Our community would get the jobs we desperately need while the district would get prime riverfront property."

But environmentalists and some Forest Preserve District commissioners are not convinced. The land Mittal proposes to exchange is not "high-quality woodland" and is not connected to other forest preserve land, said Benjamin Cox, executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves.

"Fragmented parcels are not good for ecosystems and the environment," Cox said.

Besides, the district should not give up any land, regardless of the merits of an economic development proposal, Cox and other preservationists contend. Exceptions open the door to widespread sales or swaps of forestland that could lead to depletion of the quality, if not quantity, of the district's holdings, they say.

"These lands were purchased with citizens' tax money for recreational and ecological use in perpetuity," Cox said

"Suppose, for example, some developer wanted forest land in Orland Township, promising to create 3,000 jobs. How would the Forest Preserve District be able to say no?" he said.

Although district commissioners have had preliminary discussions, the company has yet to submit a formal plan, said district spokesman Steve Mayberry.

Once it's submitted, the district board, comprised of the 17-member Cook County Board of Commissioners, would have to vote, Mayberry said, adding that a two-thirds majority is needed for land transactions.

The General Assembly also might have to approve the transaction under a stringent land use plan adopted by the board last year, Mayberry said.

The latest proposed swap closely resembles one 10 years ago when the steel plant, owned at the time by Acme Steel Co., sought to exchange 50 acres along the Little Calumet for 26 Whistler Woods acres in order to expand.

That proposal was rejected after a Forest Preserve District citizens' advisory panel objected on grounds that creating private sector jobs was not the district's mission.

That rejection contributed to Riverdale-based Acme closing its doors in 2001, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,800 jobs and more than $1 million in taxes to the Village of Riverdale and local school districts, Evans said.

International Steel Group Inc. (ISG) bought the shuttered plant in 2003. Dutch steel maker Mittal bought out ISG last year.

Events since the Forest Preserve District turned down Acme have given hope to proponents of the latest proposal.

For one thing, the district has since made an exception to its "no-sell, no swap" policy, selling 2.4 acres in Chevalier Woods in Rosemont in 1999 for a parking garage for the village's convention center. The sale, the first since the county began setting aside natural habitat as forest preserve 90 years ago, netted $2.9 million that the district is using to acquire 31 acres of woodlands in Orland Township.

"If they did it for Rosemont, why not for Riverdale?" Evans said.

The proposal has support from Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce members and the endorsement of Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D-Chicago) and Cook County Assessor James Houlihan.

County Commissioners in support include Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) and Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park).

Proponents say the area's economic slide has made the jobs more important than ever. Recent studies show that in terms of job creation, housing, and other economic measures, the south suburbs are lagging further and further behind the rest of the metropolitan area.

"To those who say this is a bad deal, let them come to Riverdale and see how much need there is for this kind of economic development," said Sims, who represents Riverdale and is leading the effort to obtain approval of the land swap.

The land sought by Mittal includes a 200-foot-wide strip of dense trees north of its steel casting facility and a triangular-shaped prairie at the southeast corner of Whistler Woods. Both are separated from the rest of the woods by dense trees and a golf driving range, making them virtually inaccessible to the public, proponents said.

"For recreational purposes, they're useless," Sims said.

Mittal plans to build two arc furnaces on the triangular parcel so the plant can achieve maximum production capacity, Boger said. It would enable the plant to create its own hot metal instead of having to transport molten iron from plants in Indiana. The strip would be used to store rolls of sheet metal the plant manufactures.

Preservationists argue the land includes valuable wetlands, home to such wildlife as deer, opossums, frogs and migratory birds. The land Mittal is offering, they say, is in poor ecological condition, and the company should look to unused land within its complex.

That option, Boger said, would force an expensive reconfiguring of the addition.

Some opponents also contend there's no guarantee Mittal would add jobs should it obtain the land. Sims said such a guarantee would be part of a land swap agreement.

She also said the company assured her the parcel it gives the district would be made clean and environmentally safe and enhanced with walking trails and other amenities.

"I wouldn't be behind this if they weren't going to put these things in writing," Sims said.

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