Lake County forest district to issue last of $185M OK'd by voters for land
A milestone is approaching for the Lake County Forest Preserve District as it prepares to issue the remaining $25 million in voter-approved bond issues that have fueled a huge program to buy and improve land.
Seven years ago, in what was described as one of the largest dollar-amount requests of its kind in the country, the forest district asked voters for authority to raise $185 million to buy land and improve facilities. Taxes wouldn't increase, voters were told, because other debt was being retired and those payments would be shifted to pay off the new bonds sold to investors.
Officials cautioned that, without approval, land purchases would stop due to lack of funds. At the time, the recession had deepened and opportunities became more abundant.
"Property prices have dropped. We have willing sellers contact us weekly," said Tom Hahn, then the district's executive director.
The result was resounding support from every corner of the county, with two-thirds of the 278,069 ballots cast in favor.
Overall, the approved allocation was 80 percent for land acquisition and 20 percent for restoration and public access improvements. In a buyer's market, the district has since added nearly 3,142 acres and expanded its vast holdings to 30,313 acres.
"This is what people want," said Steve Carlson, a veteran commissioner from Grandwood Park.
Purchases such as the 100-acre addition to the Grassy Lake Forest Preserve near Lake Barrington are touted as examples of good stewardship of those funds. Grassy Lake provides scenic overlooks of the Fox River, trails and other amenities, which were unveiled to the public Friday.
Bond funds also have been used to buy the land and build the last section of the 31-mile Des Plaines River Trail in Lincolnshire, and $800,000 was used as the local contribution for an underpass of Wilson Road to connect trails in the Round Lake area. In Lake Villa, trails, shelters, boardwalks were among a master plan of improvements at Hastings Lake Forest Preserve.
"I definitely think it was worth it. We've acquired some unbelievable property," said Linda Pedersen, a commissioner from Antioch who was elected in 2008 and is forest district vice president. She noted property is acquired as it becomes available.
"Some properties may get developed in the next two or three years, others might be 10 years out," Pedersen said. "I can't help but think years down the road, it will be appreciated."
The cupboard isn't bare yet, as there still is $10 million for land acquisition and $5.5 million for development in the bank from previous issues. The pending $25 million bond issue, scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the full forest board, represents the last available funds from the original $185 million approved by voters. Of that last portion, $17 million is allocated for development and $8 million for land acquisition.
As the funds near depletion, the district has become more selective in its purchases.
"I think we're being really strategic with what we get," said Ty Kovach, executive director. "We're trying to finish our trail connections." Where it makes sense, properties contiguous to existing preserves also are on the list, he added.
Board President Ann Maine said tax revenues have dropped with property values, causing the district to be much more sensitive to operating expenses, but having land means it can be restored or improved in the future.
Commissioners say there hasn't been any consideration about again asking voters for approval to replenish the available supply of cash.
"There is no interest at this point about going for referendum," said Commissioner Bonnie Thomson Carter, who served as forest board president from 2002 to 2010. "I think it's a good time to sit back and say what have we accomplished and where are we going?"