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Cook County Forest Preserve board votes to continue negotiating controversial land lease

Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

In a setback for open-land advocates, the Cook County Forest Preserve District Board today ordered officials to keep negotiating a lease of about 30 acres to Hinsdale in part to clear some prairie land for soccer fields.

Before the meeting, advocates said that allowing Hinsdale to add the soccer fields to the forest preserve land would violate the district’s policy. District staff had come to the same conclusion.

But commissioners voted 9-4 to continue the negotiations, saying the final plan could be devised in a way that's in keeping with the district’s mission of preserving natural lands for recreational use. (To see how they voted, please scroll down.)

“What is being brought forth is to continue ongoing negotiations,” said Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman, R-Orland Park, whose district includes the sliver of land just northwest of Ogden Avenue and the Tri-State Tollway at the center of the dispute.

Under the proposed 30-year lease, Hinsdale would invest $2 million in the land, which was split off from the rest of Bemis Woods when the tollway was built. Hinsdale would link the two parcels with walking and biking paths, Gorman said.

The village would add bathrooms. It also would fix up the ball field, which sits on two acres at what is now called Duncan Prairie, and clear another 2-acre wooded area overgrown with invasive Buckthorn to make space for two soccer fields.

"A lot of it is not in good health right now, but that’s no reason to give it away," said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves. "It is open to restoration."

Gina Hassett, Hinsdale’s director of parks and recreation, noted that the village plans to restore prairie lands surrounding the fields and put in trails.

Cox was joined by allies that included leaders of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Parks, the Civic Federation, the Open Lands Project and the Salt Creek Greenway Association.

Lise Valentine, Civic Federation vice president, noted that the district’s mission is to preserve natural open lands.

"Creating a village park by clear cutting areas for soccer fields and restroom facilities is fundamentally different from protecting and preserving the flora and fauna," Valentine said.

Cox added, "We give a few acres here, a few aces there, it will be gone before you know it."

The protesters also back efforts in the General Assembly to split the Forest Preserve board, which oversees the 68,000 acres of preservers owned by the district, from the Cook County Board.

As with most Chicago-area counties, the boards have the same elected leaders. The two governments were split earlier this decade in DuPage County, where the county had built landfills on district property.

Cox said today’s vote showed why the split is needed.

How they voted:

For continuing negotiations (9): Elizabeth Gorman, R-Orland Park; Gregg Goslin, R-Glenview; Joseph Mario Moreno, D-Chicago; Joan Patricia Murphy, D-Crestwood; Tony Peraica, R-Riverside; Edwin Reyes, D-Chicago; Timothy Schneider, R-Streamwood; Deborah Sims, D-Chicago; Robert Steele, D-Chicago.

To end negotiations (4): Jerry Butler, D-Chicago; Earlean Collins, D-Chicago; John Daley, D-Chicago; Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago.

Voting present (1): William Beavers, D-Chicago.

Absent (3): Forrest Claypool, D-Chicago; Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park; Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston.

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