About 80 persons attended at Sept. 4 meeting about widening one path at Perkins Woods in northwest Evanston. The meeting was held at Lincolnwood School, which abuts the woods. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin held a meeting on Sept. 4 about a proposed 10-foot concrete path through Perkins Woods, armed with what he apparently felt was convincing evidence that the wider path was necessary for this 7.2-acre, square block area of Cook County forest preserve in northwest Evanston. Even though the nearly 80 residents who attended the meeting at Lincolnwood School appeared to be unified in their opposition to a wider, and concrete, path they failed to convince Mr. Suffredin to change his mind.

At present there are two main five-foot-wide paths that criss-cross Perkins Woods diagonally, and three smaller paths that radiate from the center.

 Reasons to Replace the Path

Mr. Suffredin said he felt it was necessary to replace the deteriorating 10-foot-wide paths in Perkins Woods to allow greater access to vehicles for maintenance and patrol. Graffiti and fly-dumping of yard waste and building materials have been problems this summer, he said, adding that there was “some evidence” that one or more persons was sleeping in the woods over the summer.

Repairing the Woodland

“The trail system within Perkins Woods has been in terrible shape for a number of years,” Mr. Suffredin said. In conjunction with widening the path, the Cook County Forest Preserve District would remove 48 ash trees felled by or at risk of being killed by the emerald ash borer and take out buckthorn, an invasive species that tends to choke out native plants, he said. Drainage needs to be improved as well, he said, because the culverts under the paths have been silted in. “There is an underground creek that runs through Perkins Woods and comes out onto Grant Street and into sewers,” he said. New culverts under a new 10-foot wide concrete path will allow water to flow from one side of the path to the other, improving drainage in the area.

“Opening up” Perkins Woods by removing dead and diseased trees and invasive buckthorn will allow the vegetation – including the many species of woodland wildflowers there – to thrive, Mr. Suffredin said.

John McCabe, a department director of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, said he believed that removing the trees and widening the path would have no negative effect on the plants, birds and wildlife there. The “native seed bank is enough … there” to continue the plants, he said. “It will not affect the animals. They are living in an urban environment. They are incredibly adaptive,” he said.

The Width

It is necessary to widen the path, said Mr. Suffredin, to accommodate trucks from the Forest Preserve District (FPD) and the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District (NSMAD). When such trucks use the present path, they leave ruts on each side of the path, trampling or killing the present vegetation, he said.

“But it grows back,” a member of the audience said.

In answer to another question from the audience, Mr. Suffredin said the trees would be removed before the path would be widened.

Dave Zazra of NSMAD official said NSMAD does not do any adult spraying from vehicles in the forest preserve. They do check for mosquitoes infected with West Nile virus and use back-pack-mounted granular sprays for larva control. “Our big concern with Perkins Woods is the fact that it’s wet all the time.” The ruts created by vehicles that overhang the path can fill with water, and, in a hot summer such as this past one, the stagnant water allows mosquitoes to breed, he said. Perkins Woods is “always an area with a high level of West Nile virus. … One week this summer, 90 percent of the pools tested there were positive for West Nile virus: not 90 percent of the mosquitoes, but 90 percent of the pools.”

Evanston Police Department vehicles do not enter the woods except by express invitation or in an emergency, Mr. Suffredin said, but he told the residents, “We need the wider path to manage the forest preserve.”

To a question, “How many vehicles will you need,” Mr. McCabe said, “We don’t know, so that’s why we need access. We hope we’ll manage traffic in there, period.”

Mr. Suffredin said his proposal is a “compromise” – to maintain one of the criss-cross paths as a five-foot path and to widen the one into a 10-foot path. Another path that runs from the intersection of the paths to Lincolnwood School would be closed.

 The Materials

 Concrete is the better material than asphalt, Mr. Suffredin said, because the continual dampness in the area, which is fed by an underground creek or spring in the woods there. He said his staff had researched the matter, and the marshy area will not support a path of permeable pavers or crushed gravel. “Permeable surfaces [such as pavers] won’t work because of the swamp-type environment. It provides little stability,” he said. Libby Hill, the master steward of Perkins Woods, had chosen a brown color for the concrete, which would blend with the wooded surroundings, he said.

Next Steps

“We have a responsibility, both legally and morally,” to upgrade the path in Perkins Woods, Mr. Suffredin said. None of the residents at the meeting, though, appeared to be persuaded of the necessity for a 10-foot-wide concrete path. In voicing their opposition or asking questions residents variously called the proposed path a “driveway,” an “alley” and a “runway.” Applause grew louder and more prolonged as residents spoke. Near the end of the meeting, a man sitting in the rear of the auditorium asked for a show of hands from those who agreed with the 10-foot proposal. No one raised a hand or a voice.

Mr. Suffredin said he felt Ms. Hill had agreed to a 10-foot width but “changed her mind” about the width of the path after the process began. “What we have here is a process that got sidetracked,” he said.

Ms. Hill, who was out of town for the meeting, sent a response by email to the RoundTable, responding to a request for a clarification of her position. She wrote, “I never changed my mind about the 10-foot path. I never told Larry Suffredin that a 10-foot path would be okay.” 

Mr. Suffredin did not appear to have been swayed by his constituents. He said the contract for the cement was “already bid out” and that the final vote would be at the scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11 at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“What a disappointment is that,” said one resident. “We are telling you we oppose this 10-foot path and what you are telling us is, ‘It’s not negotiable.’”

“I don’t think that’s what I said,” Mr. Suffredin responded. He also said he would make his decision before the Sept. 11 meeting, but “I’m not prepared to change my mind based on anything I heard tonight.”

In an email sent to media just before noon on Sept. 6., Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he had asked that a vote on an item relating to Perkins Woods be removed from the agenda of the Sept. 11 meeting of the finance committee of the Forest Preserve District.

Mr. Suffredin’s statement appears in full below:

After reviewing comments made at a public forum on September 4, 2012 and through other channels, I have asked the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to defer from the September 11th agenda of the Forest Preserve District’s Finance Committee the item relating to the project.No action will be taken without further citizen consultation.

The mission of the Forest Preserve District (District) is to protect and preserve the natural forests and lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public. The citizens who have made comments on the project show a deep concern and love for the Woods and for how the District will meet its mission. I will work with the District to develop an outreach process to insure that all refurbishing of the trails and restoration work is done in a cooperative manner.

Please remember these facts as we go forward:

  1. After numerous requests to replace the current broken and incomplete trails the District was able to do a refinancing earlier this year which made funds available.
  2. As part of the restoration it became clear that the Woods were “too dark” and that diseased and invasive trees needed to be taken out to allow more sun light. There needs to be developed a comprehensive restoration plan.
  3. There is currently a problem with fly dumping at the Woods of building and landscaping materials. The restoration plan will work on ways to stop this.

 My office is happy to assist you with any concerns related to Dwight Perkins Woods, the Forest Preserve District or Cook County government, at 847-864-1209 or 312-603-6383.  For more information on Forest Preserve and County issues, please visit my website, www.suffredin.org or the Forest Preserve website www.fpdcc.com.