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Environmentalists opposed to Cook County forest district-Hinsdale land lease proposal

Sunday, October 04, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Gerry Smith

The noisy, overgrown sliver of land hardly looks worth fighting over.

But environmentalists say a proposed lease of
Cook County Forest Preserve District property to west suburban Hinsdale would set a precedent by violating an ordinance aimed at preserving and conserving land with limited recreational use.

"As soon as you give this to them, every village in the county is going to come asking for land," said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves.

But proponents say the deal would allow Hinsdale to restore Duncan Field, which they say has largely been ignored after being separated from Bemis Woods by the Tri-State Tollway. The property, about 30 acres northwest of the Tri-State and Ogden Avenue, has been overgrown with invasive species, they say.

"This is about enhancing and restoring a forgotten and displaced piece of land," said Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth "Liz" Doody Gorman. Hinsdale, she said, "would bring it back to the pristine forest preserve that it should be."

The issue is set to be decided at a Forest Preserve District board meeting on Wednesday.

For nearly three decades, Hinsdale has leased part of the property from the district to use for athletic fields. The proposed deal calls for a 30-year lease in which the village would spend $2 million restoring the land, improving the baseball field and building two soccer fields, a restroom facility and a trail.

Hinsdale is not the first town to encounter obstacles when eyeing forest preserve land. A few years ago, Wheeling sought approval to build a detention pond on a small parcel of forest preserve land, hoping to free up hotel property for other uses, including additional parking.

After the plan was rejected, Wheeling officials proposed adding trails, a gravel parking lot and native prairie plantings, but that plan stalled while the district studied whether the property is home to an endangered snake species. Wheeling and district officials are still in negotiations, according to village planner Andrew Jennings.

At a Sept. 2 committee meeting, district staff opposed the Hinsdale plan, arguing it "is not acceptable under our land-use guidelines," said district spokesman Steve Mayberry. But Cook County commissioners voted to move forward with negotiations.

Commissioner
Jerry Butler said he voted against the deal because of questions raised by environmental groups.

"The forest preserve is supposed to be what it is, for protecting the flora and fauna," he said.

Since then, Hinsdale officials have sought to address the commissioners' concerns, stating they have no plans to install retention ponds, lighting or fencing and promising to pay the cost of replacing vegetation.

Environmental groups -- including the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, Openlands, Friends of the Forest Preserves and Friends of the Parks -- are planning to hold a protest before Wednesday's board meeting. Cox said they would remain opposed to the deal because it would give control of the property "to an entity other than the Forest Preserve District."

"It is a land transfer, plain and simple," he said.

gfsmith@tribune.com


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