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Decadelong legal battle over Barrington Hills horse farm — eyed as huge forest preserve — may be nearing resolution

Monday, February 04, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Robert McCoppin

Decadelong legal battle over Barrington Hills horse farm — eyed as huge forest preserve — may be nearing resolution

After at least six lawsuits and almost 10 years in court, a resolution may be approaching over whether a 400-acre horse farm in Barrington Hills will become forest preserve property.

The legal tug of war has led to bad blood between the prior purchasers of the property and officials from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, who will square off at trial at the end of February.

But with recent court rulings going against the prior owners, time may be running out on their fight against a public takeover. If the forest preserve district prevails, the site would be its largest new property in some 50 years.

The property in question, Horizon Farm, formerly known as Horizon Farms, contains rolling pastures, racetracks, numerous stables, and at least one house and a mansion, which have fallen into severe disrepair. Recently, a court appointed a receiver to maintain the property while its future is decided.

Forest preserve officials have not said exactly what they would do with the property, but said they would generally maintain it as public land for hiking, biking and horseback riding. At one point they planned to allow a traditional faux fox hunt to continue on the property. But all that has been put aside during convoluted litigation.

The property owners in the case are Richard Cannon, an intellectual property attorney, and his wife, Meryl Squires-Cannon, CEO of Merix Pharmaceutical Corp. The Cannons kept some 40 horses at the farm, and they said when it came up for auction, they leveraged all their assets to make a $2 million down payment for the land, where they planned to build their dream home and raise horses. The couple bought the farm in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble, for $19 million, financed primarily by Amcore Bank.

But they said they were surprised by 500 pages of bank documents shortly before closing, some with major changes to the terms, and felt pressured into signing an unfair deal, because otherwise they would have lost their down payment.

After Amcore tried unsuccessfully to collect on its initial one-year loan for $15 million, the bank filed to foreclose on the property. The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency later determined that Amcore practiced “unsafe or unsound business practices,” and appointed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as receiver, which sold its assets to BMO Harris Bank. The bank then sold the note to the forest preserve district, which won an initial summary judgment to complete the foreclosure.

In 2016, the district temporarily opened the farm as a forest preserve, allowing people to use its trails. The district also won a court order to evict the Cannons. In retaliation, the Cannons challenged and won a ruling requiring a trial in the foreclosure case. They temporarily regained control of the property, and closed it to the public the following year.

Horizon Farm

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
If the forest preserve district prevails, the nearly 400-acre Horizon Farm in Barrington Hills would be the Cook County Forest Preserve District's largest land acquisition since 1968.
If the forest preserve district prevails, the nearly 400-acre Horizon Farm in Barrington Hills would be the Cook County Forest Preserve District's largest land acquisition since 1968. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The Cannons filed a succession of lawsuits, three in state court and three in federal court, claiming unjust takings, fraud and breach of its lease, but all the cases were dismissed or delayed.

In addition to the original bank loan, the deal had only been made possible when Robert McGinley, representing the sellers, Horizon Farms Inc., agreed to loan the couple $1.5 million, in order to take advantage of inheritance tax savings that would expire at the end of the year, according to the petition.

To repay that loan plus 20 percent annual interest, the Cannons were ordered to pay $8 million to McGinley Partners. But they aren’t giving up without a fight.

On Friday, the Cannons filed a petition to vacate the $8 million judgment against them, claiming fraudulent changes to the sales documents on behalf of the lenders, Amcore and McGinley, who could not be immediately reached for comment. “The fraudulent acts of seller and lender should shock the conscience of this Court,” the petition states.

As if the financial turmoil were not enough, there was also a feud sparked when Meryl Squires-Cannon was arrested for criminal trespassing on the property. She filed suit against forest preserve police for false arrest and malicious prosecution, but was cleared of the charge at trial, and her suit was dismissed.

Further complicating matters, the property has a conservation easement to keep it mostly in its open, natural state, and which limits development to eight estates.

Despite all the legal machinations, one federal court ruling stated, “We agree with the district court, the Cannons inflicted their own damage by defaulting on the note.”

The Cannons aim to challenge the foreclosure when the case finally goes to trial Feb. 25.

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

 



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