Despite cooperation, Lake forest district not signing off on longer Waukegan airport runway

  • The proposed replacement and lengthening of a runway at Waukegan National Airport would require about 52 acres of the adjoining Waukegan Savanna Forest Preserve.

    The proposed replacement and lengthening of a runway at Waukegan National Airport would require about 52 acres of the adjoining Waukegan Savanna Forest Preserve. Courtesy of Waukegan Port District

  • The Waukegan National Airport wants to lengthen a runway from 6,000 to 7,000 feet as part of an expansion project, but doing so could require the acquisition of neighboring land from the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

    The Waukegan National Airport wants to lengthen a runway from 6,000 to 7,000 feet as part of an expansion project, but doing so could require the acquisition of neighboring land from the Lake County Forest Preserve District. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Posted11/4/2021 5:20 AM

The Lake County Forest Preserve District will get an advance look and opportunity to comment on environmental studies associated with a potential $143 million runway replacement at Waukegan National Airport.

The sneak peek is courtesy of an invitation from the Federal Aviation Administration to serve as a "cooperating agency" in the environmental assessment process regarding the proposed project.

 

District officials have been directed to accept the FAA's request but stress that doing so doesn't mean they support the airport plan, including the proposed replacement and lengthening of a runway.

"It doesn't mean we're endorsing the project in any way," said Ty Kovach, the forest district's executive director. "We're getting an early look -- there's no commitment on the part of the board."

The district for several years has been in discussions with the airport regarding the potential work. In 2017, the district approved a letter of intent saying it would be willing to consider selling 52 acres from the neighboring Waukegan Savanna Forest Preserve, which is required for the project.

But the letter was intended as a framework for future negotiations, and provisions pertaining to a property sale are nonbinding. It's expected to be some time before the forest board would have to take official action on anything related to the airport plan.

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Meanwhile, an environmental assessment will be done regardless of whether the district is considered a "cooperating agency," district Commissioner Paul Frank told members of the board's planning committee.

"It doesn't mean we're signing off or conceding any of our rights," Frank said. "I think it would make sense for us to participate and move forward."

The FAA anticipates resources such as wetlands, floodplains, streams and habitat for threatened or endangered species could be affected by the proposed airport improvements, district officials say.

Because it has special expertise in those matters, the district would be allowed -- and required, as a cooperating agency -- to review and comment before a draft environmental assessment is released for public review. That's expected in the first three months of 2022.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Being a cooperating agency does not compel the district to enter into any agreement with the Waukegan Port District, which owns and operates the airport, commissioners were told.

However, the term prompted questions from some planning committee members. Kovach and others emphasized it was not a commitment to the project.

"It's just a review of data," he said. "There is no signoff."

Airport officials say lengthening the runway from 6,000 to 7,000 feet is required to meet current safety guidelines.

The project would allow the airport to retain and attract tenants and jobs, and otherwise help grow the facility, which is an economic engine for Lake County, officials have said.

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