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New forest preserve provides natural beauty, but land dispute gets ugly

Friday, June 24, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Robert McCoppin

Hiking, horseback riding and possibly even a faux fox hunt are set to take place this year at Horizon Farms, the largest Forest Preserve District acquisition in Cook County in nearly 50 years and one of the most expensive ever.

But even as the 400 acres of rolling hayfields, stables and tree groves inBarringtonHills open to the public, the pastoral setting belies the ugliness of a raging legal battle over the land.

Now the dispute stands to get even muddier, with a former owner claiming that a recent victory in the fight over his foreclosure means the property should revert to him.

"What a mess," said Robert McGinley, another previous owner whose family held the land at the county's northwestern edge for decades. "Hopefully, it gets resolved soon."

But there's no immediate end in sight.

When the picturesque horse farm and estate lapsed into foreclosure in 2009, Forest Preserve District officials saw a rare opportunity: a vast swath of mostly pristine land that they might be able to pick up for a relative bargain. The district ended up paying $14.5 million in 2014, and the purchase was lauded by conservationists as a major coup.

But the owners who had been foreclosed upon, attorney Richard Cannon and his wife, Meryl Squires Cannon, CEO and founder of a pharmaceutical company that makes Releev cold sore medication, have been fighting ever since to win back what they say they was wrongly taken from them.

The Cannons filed suit claiming the Forest Preserve District overstepped its authority by acquiring the property in foreclosure. The Cannons lost and eventually appealed to both the state and U.S. supreme courts, but neither would hear their case.

However, the couple, who had purchased the land for $19 million in 2006 but then became unable to make the payments on their loan, also challenged their foreclosure in court. They argued that they were under economic duress when they had finalized the deal because their lender dumped 500 pages of documents on them the day before closing. If they hadn't signed, they said, they would have lost their $2 million initial payment.

A trial court dismissed that claim, but after more than six years of litigation, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled last month that there was merit to the Cannons' argument and sent the case back to the trial court to reconsider the matter.

Richard Cannon asserts that the ruling in effect negates the foreclosure and that therefore the ownership of the land should revert to Royalty Properties LLC, the corporation representing him and his wife.

"Royalty Properties still owns the farm and is entitled to exclusive possession," he said.

His viewpoint received some support from Stacey Tutt, an assistant law professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana who has expertise in real estate law.

By taking ownership of the loan before the foreclosure was completed, Tutt said, the Forest Preserve District took on the liability of the banks that had handled the deal. Since the foreclosure has now been reversed, she said in an email, "the borrowers remain the owners," until further hearings and action by the lower court.

But Forest Preserve District officials say they retain title to the estate and will continue with their plans to turn the site into a nature preserve with equestrian and other recreational activities.

The land first opened as a public forest preserve last year, with an entry gate off Old Sutton Road, parking and 4 miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.

That proved to be short-lived.

A judge closed the site to the public over the winter while the litigation plodded along, and the preserve was just reopened to the public last month.

One section, however, remains closed to general access. It holds empty homes and stables, and was home to the last two mares and their two foals on the site.

Meryl Squires Cannon and employees who took care of the horses were ordered to leave by June 1 but have not, and Forest Preserve District officials say they are seeking a contempt of court order to force them out. That came after the district had already initiated eviction proceedings, but the eviction order was delayed by a judge.

Since the district's acquisition of the land, officials have hosted public meetings on its future. Suggested uses have included horse boarding, polo lessons, bird-watching, lacrosse and an off-leash dog area.

The district also has commissioned a market analysis to determine the feasibility of offering equestrian and other services there.

Despite the turmoil, one traditional activity that has continued to take place at the farm is the re-enactment of a fox hunt. The Fox River Valley Hounds emphasizes that no foxes or actual hunting is involved, but club members train their hounds in a pack while riding their horses. The simulated hunts run eight to 10 times year after the bird nesting season, from late August through December.

The club conducted its hunts at the farm the past two years and plans for another this fall while members hope for a resolution of the legal issues, McGinley said. Preserve officials said they have not yet issued permits for the event this year.

The farm was founded in 1978 by William McGinley, who was CEO of Methode Electronics. He died in 2001, leaving the land to his wife and three grown children, including Robert McGinley, who ran the farm after his father's death until the family sold it to the Cannons. The property includes eight homes including an abandoned mansion, 16 barns and 36 other buildings including storage and offices, many of which are falling into disrepair.

Robert McGinley recalls the land would sometimes house as many as 200 horses that were being bred and trained to race at Arlington International Racecourse and elsewhere.

McGinley, a landscape photographer and filmmaker who has exhibited photos of the farm, said he's still seeking money he is owed from the land deal, so is trying to stay neutral. But he hopes to see it remain a natural area, as provided for by a conservation easement he entered years ago.

"This place is about finding peace and tranquility," he said. "For me this is spiritual, it's not legal. If the forest preserve gets it, it would be a wonderful resource for the public."

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

Copyright © 2016,Chicago Tribune

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