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Turf battle brews in Oak Forest over mowing district land

Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Mike Nolan

Susan Panozzo calls it a "movement" that started in her Oak Forest home about a year ago. She and her husband, Larry, and other longtime residents living next door to Cook County Forest Preserve District property are determined to keep mowing and otherwise maintaining strips of district land behind their homes, as some have done for decades. Beyond an improved appearance, the work in some cases helps control flooding or provides a buffer against potential wildfires, they said. But the residents have been ticketed recently by the forest preserve district for encroaching on district land, and they're none too happy about it. And they're not alone ó throughout Cook County, there's a land feud that's pitting decades-old practices against policies that aim to keep the preserves in their natural state. Susan Panozzo said it's "ridiculous" for residents to be ticketed for cutting grass. "We're not cutting down trees and putting them in our fireplace," she said. County officials say the practice of issuing citations isn't new, and they're used only as a last resort after the district issues a warning. The forest preserve district has cracked down on residents who've built storage sheds, play equipment and even swimming pools on district property abutting their yards, but the Panozzos and other Oak Forest residents argue they're not using district land for any purpose and question the harm in mowing or trimming the area that adjoins their property. About 70 of them attended a recent two-hour meeting at City Hall with district officials, with often testy and blunt exchanges that revolved around what has been done in the past and what's being done now. It all boils down to ownership of property, Arnold Randall, the district's general superintendent, told the homeowners. "If I don't like how my neighbor maintains his or her property, I can't go over and do it differently," he said of the different viewpoints of residents on how the district property should look. While the forest preserve district will mow at picnic groves and keep its golf courses, such as Oak Forest's George Dunne National, manicured, "the vast majority of the forest preserve system is maintained in its natural state," Randall said, which is a "change in culture" in how the district manages its land. "Things we used to mow we don't mow anymore," he told the residents. "Our policies have changed over time." But residents vowed to push to maintain the past practices, with Mayor Hank Kuspa suggesting a petition be sent to the County Board, which doubles as the Forest Preserve District Board. "Nobody here is the enemy," the mayor said at one point in the meeting. Kuspa said Oak Forest is bordered on three sides by forest preserves, and that while "the jewels around the neck of Oak Forest are the forest preserves," some residents "think they are not the jewels but more like the noose" around their necks. Residents such as the Panozzos, who've been talking with city officials about the ticketing and spreading the word to other residents, say it's not just a matter of aesthetics. Larry Panozzo said he has been fined $100 twice for cutting a 75-foot-deep swath beyond the edge of his back yard that he sees as necessary to protect his home and family. He said he's worried about wildlife and the safety of his 2-year-old granddaughter when she comes over to play in the yard. "We don't know what's going to crawl out of those weeds," Panozzo said at the meeting with district officials. "I'm going to do what I have to do to protect (his house and family)." He called on district officials to "at least understand and work with the communities and coexist." But Randall strongly resisted allowing homeowners to continue maintaining district land, saying "we want to work with folks, but we want folks to work with us." One resident, Jim Dillon, said he has lived next to forest preserve property for 37 years, and the district until recently was "all for us cutting the grass" because it helped provide a potential fire break between houses and the forest. "What harm are we doing to the forest preserve cutting 25" feet of grass, he asked. Robert Burns, another resident, said a wildfire in April next to his daughter's house risked consuming the house, but her husband had cleared overgrowth to establish a fire break. "This is quite personal and real to me," Burns said. John McCabe, the district's director of resource management, said the district "used to cut fire breaks all over," but that's not the current practice. Tom Noeth said that a sewer grate behind his home on Linden Drive is on district property and that he mows around it and keeps it free of leaves and other debris, for which he now has been ticketed. He said that if the grate isn't kept clear, stormwater runoff finds its way into his house. Noeth said he's angry that he's being discouraged by threat of a fine from protecting his property. "If I'm not allowed to do that, you put my home in a flooding state," he told Randall. Seventeen Oak Forest residents had Sept. 13 court dates at the Daley Center in Chicago rescheduled to early October, but they'll have to show photographic proof that they're no longer maintaining the forest preserve district property. Panozzo said that county Commissioner Joan Murphy, D-Crestwood, whose district includes Oak Forest, has assured the residents that the citations will ultimately be dismissed. Murphy could not be reached for comment. McCabe said that while one homeowner might not think the small amount of land they're mowing is a big deal, "it amounts to a lot of acreage across the district." In a concession to residents, McCabe said the forest preserve district would be willing to hire a contractor to make one pass annually between homes and its land, likely in late fall when dry brush can be more of a fire hazard, to mow a section no deeper than 15 feet. Panozzo and his neighbors on Charleston Street, which abuts several acres of forest preserve property north of 159th Street and west of Ridgeland Avenue, said the property was once farmland that over many years became overgrown. One neighbor who was at the meeting, Linda Ferguson, told Randall the district property now resembles a "huge mish-mosh of crapola." Randall said that, over the years, the district has acquired an ample amount of farmland and that at several sites a "lot of invasive species have taken over." McCabe said that there are about 30,000 acres that the district wants to restore, with sites near Oak Forest, Orland Park and Tinley Park "higher up on the list," although there are no immediate plans to address the property abutting homes on Charleston Drive.

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