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Cook Co. forest preserve, purchased for $14.5M, is closed amid land dispute

Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Robert McCoppin

NO TRESPASSING" signs have been posted at the entrances to the largest new forest preserve in Cook County.

"Forest Preserve of Cook County does not have possession & has no right to enter this property or permit others to do so," the warning reads on a locked gate at Horizon Farm, a rolling, 400-acre horse farm in Barrington Hills.

The notice was posted by Rich and Meryl Squires Cannon, who assert they are the true owners of the land after they won an Illinois Appellate Court decision in a long-standing legal battle over the prized property.

The court ruled that there is a legitimate question as to whether the Cannons were fraudulently pressured into the mortgage that led to foreclosure of their property. As a result, a lower court must reconsider whether the Forest Preserve District can foreclose on the property.

The shutdown is the latest development in a yearslong feud between the couple and the district. It could be years more before the dispute and the fate of the land is resolved.

"We want to keep it as our private estate and build our dream house," attorney Rich Cannon said. He and his wife, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, raise and race horses at Arlington International Racecourse. "We still haven't gotten the keys back from the forest preserve."

The Forest Preserve District declined to answer questions about the dispute but issued a statement:

"The Forest Preserve District currently is in the process of taking several steps ... to exercise greater control of, as well as provide greater public access to, Horizon Farm. We believe these measures should allow us to reopen the site prior to final resolution of the foreclosure matter."

Last week, the district filed a request with the Illinois Supreme Court to delay the appellate order.

The Cannons bought the site in 2006 for $19 million, which Crain's Chicago Business reported was the most expensive home purchase in the area at that time. The Cannons say they made all their monthly payments on a one-year loan. But, they say, when the lender, Amcore Bank, insisted they pay off the loan in one year, rather than renegotiating a long-term loan, as expected, the Cannons couldn't do so and the bank foreclosed.

That's when the district stepped in to buy the rare site out of foreclosure for $14.5 million in 2013 — the organization's largest single acquisition in almost 50 years. In 2015 the district opened the farm to the public for hiking, biking and horseback riding, noting its open pastures, wetlands and native bird habitat.

The site also has numerous stables and a few houses, including a large mansion and guesthouse, which have sat vacant and deteriorating in recent years while preserve officials have tried to resolve the legal issues and decide what to do with the property.

Whoever owns the property is limited by a conservation easement entered by the previous owners, the McGinley family. The agreement with the Barrington Area Conservation Trust limits development to eight estate homes plus some equestrian-related projects.

The Forest Preserve District owns about 11 percent of all land in Cook County, with plans to buy 90,000 more acres in the next 25 years. The Cannons object that it's unfair for government entities to buy properties in foreclosure, rather than eminent domain, in which a jury can ultimately decide the value of a property. The couple lost a state lawsuit over that issue and are appealing a new case in federal court.

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

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