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Autism school supporters protest Navistar plan in Lisle
By Marco Santana | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/8/2009 12:01 AM

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The director of a recently opened autism school in Lisle said Monday the organization was "betrayed and deceived" by the village when they spent nearly $10 million to move into town, only to be told less than a month after opening that a new diesel engine testing site may open nearby.

Bridget O'Connor, executive director of Giant Steps Illinois, made the comments during a protest preceding a regularly scheduled Lisle village board meeting.

The protest drew more than 100 supporters and eventually spilled out into the hallway.

O'Connor said the school would never have expanded from Burr Ridge to the 72,800-square-foot facility, which opened in October, if officials had known about the Navistar project.

Navistar International is seeking to move its headquarters to the former Lucent property on Warrenville Road in Lisle.

Officials from Giant Steps Illinois worry diesel fuel fumes from the nearby facility may harm students.

"(The purchase) never would have happened if they had given us the opportunity to know," O'Connor said.

Village President Joe Broda said school officials always have known of the potential for redevelopment at the site of the former Alcatel-Lucent property.

"Absolutely not," Broda said of the accusations. "They came before us and they knew they were going into an office research district. They knew what they were going into."

School officials said they felt the village had not been entirely forthcoming this summer when school construction began.

The proposed Navistar facility would include research for diesel engines and, if approved, is expected to bring more than 3,000 jobs to the village.

However, early plans included a 162,000-gallon liquid storage and waste facility as well as a vehicle preparation facility. During the meeting, attorney Shawn Collins vowed to fight the village if it pursues the facility.

As of right now, the project is still being considered by the village's planning and zoning commission. Broda said he expects Navistar to return to the commission next month with revised plans.

The village and the DuPage County Board had agreed in September to buy three acres of DuPage Forest Preserve land for the project. But last week, forest preserve officials said they were looking into whether they could legally cancel that sale because of the possible dangers associated with the facility.

Teresa Conrick, a member of the National Autism Association and a parent of a student at the school, said any adverse effect on the environment would be dangerous to Giant Steps students.

"As minimal as they may seem, they are going to affect these children," she said. "These children are extremely vulnerable to environmental issues. It comes down to medical health versus money."

As for the village, Broda said it is too early in the process to even speculate what will be done. He said he uncharacteristically limited public comments to 30 minutes Monday because he expected many repeat questions and concerns from prior meetings.

With three grandchildren, he said he was "extremely sensitive" to what autistic children deal with, but also said he would wait to see what experts recommend before moving forward.

O'Connor said the protest served to raise awareness of the issue and to get people to ask questions of the village. But she also hoped officials would heed the warnings.

"The biggest hope is that Lisle will protect the children," she said.

School: Forest preserve looks into canceling Navistar land sale