A goodwill gesture by Costco Wholesale Corp. has softened the harsh stance of some Mettawa residents who fought to keep the retailer out of the village.
"I've been the one with the torches and pitchforks for so long, I was taken by surprise," said Mark Meluso, whose home is about 1,000 feet away from the to-be-built Costco store near Riverwoods Road and Route 60.
The project generated two lawsuits, divided the community and led to a raucous election last April - the first in decades in the rural village.
But it is a small fish - actually hundreds of them - that has turned the tide for some who fought the store tooth and nail.
Instead of draining a pond on its property and disposing of whatever fish died as a result, the company agreed to relocate the fish population to a pond shared by Meluso and a neighbor.
For 16 years, until 2005, the four-acre pond on the Costco site had been leased by the nearby Banner Day Camp for kids to fish, canoe and kayak. So when construction crews began draining it last week, Meluso and a neighbor figured they would intervene.
"We wanted to go with fish nets and coolers," Meluso said. But since relocating a pond of fish carries liabilities and technicalities, the offer was not accepted, despite a willingness by Meluso and helpers to sign "hold harmless" letters.
After considering the situation, Costco hired Integrated Lakes Management Inc. of Waukegan to survey the pond. By that point the water level had been dropped to the point that employees using a 100-foot long net literally dragged the pond to see what was in there.
"We didn't find a significant number of fish that needed to be moved," said Keith Gray, who heads the company.
Nonetheless, Costco agreed to have all the fish, mainly small blue gills, captured and relocated at its own expense.
"To be honest, I was absolutely astounded," Meluso said. "It was not in the (construction) contract. They didn't have to do it."
Though it wasn't as if a protest would have been staged, the gesture was important to Meluso and others.
"This is a step, in my estimation, to heal some of the wounds," said Mayor Jess Ray, who had intervened on Meluso's behalf.
Ironically, it was Ray who brought suit against the village claiming deceptive and secretive dealings with the site. After being elected mayor, Ray was replaced as a plaintiff by Peter Ritsos, who shares the large pond with Meluso.
As of Wednesday afternoon, about 1,900 blue gills had been relocated, with more to come today.
"This will be a whole community thing. If you want to scoop out a fish come and get them," Meluso said.
Once the 12 million gallon pond is drained, it will be left to dry, and eventually be used as an underground water detention system.
"What you'll see there ultimately is a parking lot," said Ricardo Padilla, project manager for Novak Construction, which will be building the warehouse store, gas station and other improvements.
Although he had planned to boycott, Meluso said he'll be among the customers when the store opens this fall. The fish caper changed his mind, he said.
"It made a difference to me."