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Stop Hinsdale's land grab

Monday, October 05, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Cook County officials are discussing an indefensible land deal that would permit the village of Hinsdale to clear forest preserve land for its own use.

The proposed agreement would violate the law that protects preserves for future generations. If board members cut this deal with Hinsdale, expect many municipalities to attempt similar land grabs of their own.

We understand why Hinsdale -- much of which is in DuPage County -- wants a 30-year lease on a 26-acre plot of Bemis Woods known as Duncan Field. The village would build two soccer fields, bike paths and make other improvements on the land, north of Ogden Avenue and west of Interstate Highway 294. It's a parcel split from the rest of Bemis Woods in the 1950s when the new interstate bisected the preserve.

As development throughout metro Chicago has made it difficult for park districts and other governments to find vacant property, they increasingly view forest preserve districts as land banks from which they want to withdraw, or borrow, acres.

Most of these proposals are well-intended. But since its creation in 1914, Cook County's Forest Preserve District has had an intentionally narrow mission: to acquire, preserve and protect natural lands -- not to approve use of them for other worthy causes. Former county Commissioner Carl Hansen famously (in conservation circles) stated during an unrelated attempt to grab "just a little" district land in the 1990s that preservation of open lands cannot be justified on grounds of economic benefit or most-visitors-per-square-foot. If those were the criteria, Hansen said, the district would have to surrender all of its 68,000 acres.

Hinsdale's attempt also evokes a succinct observation in 2005 by Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation of Chicago, when a south suburban steel plant wanted to expand (and create jobs) on Forest Preserve District land: "The people who sacrificed, who fought to preserve this forest land knew there would be hundreds of good ideas for other uses," Msall said. "But when they wrote the charter, they said no."

That effort to grab forest preserve land flopped, just as this one must. The district superintendent and staff -- sharper managers than the 2002 crowd -- signaled that last February: They refused to recommend Hinsdale's proposal to the district board.

The idea's reappearance now is a perfect example of why the 17 members of the Cook County Board, whose interests include improving and developing property, shouldn't also be -- as they unfortunately are -- the board of the Forest Preserve District. Board member Elizabeth Doody Gorman has been pushing for approval of Hinsdale's land grab. And though we often agree with her on policy issues, here we couldn't disagree more strenuously.

The Forest Preserve District invited Hinsdale's proposal by not sticking to consistent rules back in 1981. The village got permission to put a baseball field right in the middle of this parcel. That lease, renewed annually for 28 years, evidently gives Hinsdale officials a sense of entitlement: They already have a Hinsdale footprint hidden deep in Cook's forest. Allowing Hinsdale to alter one more square foot, let alone the 15 acres the district says would be impacted, would set a terrible precedent. Even now, other suburbs are nursing proposals for their own projects on forest preserve property. If the Cook County Board -- sorry, the Forest Preserve District Board -- says yes to Hinsdale, how will it say no to all the others?

We've celebrated before that though other metropolises have renowned architecture, diverse economies, good universities and world-class cultural institutions, none has Chicago's emerald necklace. Those fragile forests survive as testament to a century of aggressive protection. Board members should resoundingly reject Hinsdale's plan.

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