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Lake Co. forest preserve wants to buy more land
By Mick Zawislak | Daily Herald Staff

Lake County Forest Preserve District Executive Director Tom Hahn says land prices have dropped and there are plenty of opportunities to acquire more property if a referendum to issue bonds is approved by voters.

 

Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

The new Nippersink Forest Preserve, a former campground near Round Lake, is an example of what voter approved bond funds can be used for, according to the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

 

Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/7/2008 3:43 PM | Updated: 10/7/2008 5:07 PM

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Despite a brisk, chilly wind, visitors last week enjoyed the day at a picnic table with a waterfront view at Lake County's newest forest preserve.

That type of scene is exactly what the Lake County Forest Preserve District hopes voters to consider when they go to the polls Nov. 4. The district wants approval to issue $185 million in bonds to acquire land, restore habitats and improve public access throughout a system that has grown to nearly 27,000 acres.

"This is a great example of what we would be doing with your referendum dollars," district executive director Tom Hahn explained beneath a shelter at the Nippersink Forest Preserve on Route 120 in Round Lake.

With an infusion of cash, the district could buy as many as 3,500 more acres. Its chief selling point is that would be done without a tax increase.

Since previous bond issues are being retired, money that had been used to pay off that debt would be shifted to fund a new issue. If the measure doesn't pass, the tax bill for a home valued at $200,000 would drop $24.

"The real key here is educating the public. It allows us to continue doing what we have in the past with no tax increase," Hahn said.

Forest preserve commissioners and staff are busy spreading the word and are available to explain the measure to groups. Pushes will be made on weekends at busy locations, such as Independence Grove Forest Preserve.

Informational pamphlets also have been mailed to 248,000 households with registered voters.

"The ballot language doesn't allow us to explain how we're replacing these old bonds with new bonds," said Andy Kimmel, the district's deputy executive director. "That's something people won't see when they go to the ballot box."

The district touts its stewardship in preserving more than 6,000 acres since 1999 and public satisfaction with the outcome.

Organized opposition to the current proposal has not been apparent although the Concerned Taxpayers, a group formed a few years ago in opposition to a Gurnee school district tax hike proposal, has added it to its list.

"If the bonds were paid off, my tax bill for next year will go down," said Shawn Depke, the group's founder. "I don't think it's a good time for the taxpayers."

District officials think their case is hard to refute, particularly given the economics of real estate these days, which has become a silver lining of sorts for buyers.

"We're at a time in which there are many good land acquisition opportunities," Hahn said. Land prices have dropped 10 to 15 percent, he added.

There is no shortage of targets, as the district has a land acquisition wish list of 10,000 acres ranked by priority. Those include additions to existing preserves and links to other greenways or natural areas in need of protection, for example.

"We went almost parcel by parcel of the entire county," Hahn said.

According to the proposal, 80 percent or $148 million in new bond money would replenish land acquisition funds. About $37 million would be used for improvements, such as fishing piers, trails and wetland restoration.

Nippersink is used as an example of what voters would get for their support.

Purchased in stages beginning in 2001, the 309-acre parcel was completed with the acquisition in 2004 of the former Country Lakes Resort campground.

It was developed to include two miles of trails along lakes and woodlands, as well as fishing piers, picnic shelters, a boardwalk and scenic overlook. The grand opening, which featured wagon rides, hikes, crafts and demonstrations, was Oct. 4.

"Over the last 10 years, we've made a concerted effort to let people know what we're doing with the properties," Hahn said. "I think people just realize the value of open space in Lake County."

And they have voted that support. Since an unsuccessful request for $45 million in 1991, which the district pegged to a lack of organization and publicity, voters three times have approved a total of $170 million in funding for land acquisitions and improvements.

The district also has restructured existing bonds to increase available cash, but the land acquisition cupboard will be bare soon.