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A Wilmette real estate developer wishes to construct a road through a swamp-oak forest on Evanston’s far north side to allow egress for a private development. Rather than connecting to existing streets in Wilmette for egress for the proposed residential development, Keefe Family Trust, the owner of the landlocked property, would like to clear and pave all or most of this tiny oak forest.
The request for an easement through the property is encountering opposition from the Evanston community and the City Council. The owner of the property, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), has leased the property to Evanston since 1966. The lease has been renewed and will expire in 2032.
On May 15, City Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the request for the easement.
A provision of the MWRD lease allows the construction of roads under certain conditions “for the use of any other governmental agency engaged in the construction of highways and roadways…. the Lessee shall surrender the possession of such part of the demised premises that may be so required.”
On April 28, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways submitted a request for a “75-year easement utilizing its roadmaking authority to install and maintain a roadway on the subject property.”
It is unclear how much weight the City’s opposition to the easement will carry when the MWRD Board meets today, May 18, to consider the request. It is also unclear why Cook County became involved to help out a private developer. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the RoundTable that the developer would pay for the road but it would be a public road.
The Keefe Family Trust, which owns the 1.1-acre landlocked Wilmette property, would like an easement through Isabella Woods so it can sell the property to an “interested buyer.” The unnamed buyer, according to information presented at a public meeting last November, would like to build Fairway Oaks, a development with four 12,000-square foot homes, but it must provide egress from the property.
The parcel, known as Isabella Woods, is located north of Isabella Street just east of the CTA tracks, adjacent to fairway and hole #4 on Canal Shores Golf Course. Isabella Woods contains “a unique ecosystem with 55 trees that are mostly mature providing a haven for local wildlife and diverts thousands of gallons of storm water from the combined sewer system,” according to the City Council’s resolution.
Paul D’Agostino, the City’s Environmental Services Bureau Chief, said several months ago he had looked at the parcel several times and found it to be a “significant parcel.” In addition to containing six swamp white oaks, he said, “there are numerous other significant trees on this site, including other oaks. … My estimate of some of the largest trees is that they are approaching 200 years old. Under good conditions, some oaks can live to be 300-400 years old, although I’m not sure this site would support that type of longevity, due to the very wet conditions much of the year.”
In addition to being a unique woods, the parcel offers significant drainage for storm water – something MWRD has said is a significant criterion for use of its land. Wendy Pollock, chair of the City’s Environment Board, said cutting down the mature trees, planting young trees, and making the surface impermeable would not make up for the present ecological significance and storm-water diversion. At present, she said, the woods diverts about 110,000 gallons of storm water annually.
Evanston resident and engineer Carl Bova said he thinks if Isabella Woods is destroyed and a road constructed, there would be significant flooding, enough to destroy the road and to require upgrading of some of Evanston’s sewer system.
At a public meeting in November of last year, a representative of the Keefe Family Trust said that, in exchange for an easement across the woods, the trust would construct a public park for the benefit of Evanston residents and provide money to maintain it for 10 years.
Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle recapped the Nov. 3 meeting to her colleagues and said that all but one person who attended the meeting was strongly opposed to the road and the “bone” of a public park and preferred leaving the woods as is.
Ald. Revelle also recounted the continued acquisition of landlocked property by Keefe and its attempts to create egress: Mr. Keefe began acquiring landlocked property in 1988, and in 1989 negotiated with the CTA to get an easement for egress. In 1990, Keefe submitted a proposal to build four houses on the landlocked property, but that was rejected by the Village of Wilmette, because the road he proposed was not sufficiently wide for emergency vehicles to turn around in.
Keefe sued the Village, and Wilmette prevailed after eight years. John Adler, Wilmette’s Community Development Director, told the RoundTable no representataives from Keefe have contacted the Village of Wilmette about the parcel in recent times. Still, looking at a map of Wilmette, it is possible to see how streets can be constructed from the landlocked property to connect with existing Wilmette streets.
Last year MWRD approached the City of Evanston to ask the City to consent to an easement, and that was when Keefe proposed the park. After the Nov. 3 meeting at which most everyone expressed opposition to losing the woods, Keefe went to the Cook County Department of Transportation to request the easement for the building of a public road.
Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the RoundTable the Cook County Highway Department has the authority to apply to construct a road if there is a public purpose. The public purpose in this instance, Mr. Suffredin said, is the generation of property taxes, which will be possible after the land is developed. He said he advises the City to work with MWRD to create conditions for the easement. Alternatively, he suggested trying to find a person or organization, such as OpenLands, that might be willing to purchase the property for open space public use or to see if the City of Evanston and the Village of Wilmette could jointly create a public park there.
The application by the Cook County Department of Transportation triggered Ald. Revelle’s call for a special City Council meeting to oppose the easement. Her colleagues unanimously approved the resolution.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, asked if Ald. Revelle had any sense as to whether MWRD would oppose the easement. Ald. Revelle said MWRD had opposed a commercial easement to the Ritz-Carlton company along Michigan Avenue in Chicago but had lost a lawsuit over the easement and had to pay $40 million.
“MWRD is not anxious for another lawsuit. I don’t know whether that will prevail over their mission,” Ald. Revelle said.
“There are wonderful ecological and storm-water benefits that this valuable piece of property provides] this community. [We hope they see] how valuable it is,” she added.