Elgin League of Women Voters slams the Kane forest district
By Erin Sauder For Sun-Times Media November 4, 2013 5:58PM
The kane County Forest Preserve District boundry lines can be seen from Rt. 31 between Algonquin and Carpentersville. August 3, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 6, 2013 6:13AM
The Elgin Area League of Women Voters has released the results of a study it did that criticizes the Kane County Forest Preserve District, accusing commission members of conflict of interest, ignoring what should be the forest district’s primary mission, and lacking transparency.
Forest District President John Hoscheit said that while he respects the right of the league to voice its opinions on the district, the group is being “narrow-minded” and he couldn’t disagree more with the results of the study.
Carol Grom, chairman of the League, said the 2013 study is an expansion and follow-up to a two-year league study completed last year on what its says was potential gravel mining in the Brunner Forest Preserve in Dundee Township.
“When we did the original study of the possibility of gravel mining, we very quickly came to the conclusion it was a very bad idea for a number of reasons,” Grom said. “We also found in researching that particular study that there were a number of other issues that were at least as important that needed to be done in a follow-up study.”
In 2007, voters approved a Kane County forest preserve open space referendum that allowed officials to eventually acquire the Brunner Farm property, an undeveloped 741-acre area north of Carpentersville between Route 31 and the Fox River. Some district commissioners then brought up the idea of allowing gravel mining on the land, but the issue was dropped after many members of the public and Kane County Board — whose members also serve as forest district commissioners — said they were not in favor of the idea.
“At this point, the gravel mining is moot,” Grom said. “They retreated from the idea in the face of the public’s strong opposition. That’s not to say it won’t come back up again.”
But currently, Grom said the forest district’s mission drift has the league “a lot more concerned.”
“What we found out is just how much forest preserve land that is acquired is not natural land in its natural state,” she said. “The Downstate Forest Preserve Act was amended a number of years back to allow (forest preserve districts) to acquire things like golf courses. So our forest preserve has the (Kane County) Cougars stadium, an ice arena and a number of golf courses, all of which are a bit of a stretch to the natural areas.”
And the natural areas that are in the forest district Grom alleges have been leased or given for no rent at all to a number of park districts to be used as recreational land.
The study goes on to report that intergovernmental agreements and licensing agreements between the forest district and other legal entities and organizations have sanctioned the use of “preserved” land for the construction of maintenance and storage facilities, athletic fields, Frisbee golf courses, a model railroad club, community gardens, and a radio-controlled model airplane field, among others.
“That has me concerned,” Grom said. “When people are approving referendums for a forest preserve, they want to think of natural land. I don’t want to think of land being turned into athletic fields and city parks. I think we’ve drifted a bit far from the core mission to preserve natural lands.”
As for transparency, the report states that while district meetings are open to the public, the times and places are not generally conducive to public attendance. The report also alleges that meeting minutes do not always include a summary of all matters proposed, deliberated or decided, and that the minutes are often not posted for months after a meeting is held.
“So even if you want to follow along, it’s difficult because you’re not going to hear about it until several months after it happened,” Grom said.
League members said the study is not meant to be an indictment on the Kane County Forest Preserve District but rather “is intended to point out perceived problems and suggest a course correction where necessary.”
“Taxpayers just assume money is being used to preserve forests and natural land and, as it turns out, that is not always the case,” Grom said. “I think the forest preserve district needs to reanalyze their priorities and realign them to the core mission of preserving natural land in its natural state. I think they’re drifting away from that.”
The study was sent to all the Kane County Board members and forest preserve commission members.
Kane County Board member Rebecca Gillam (R-West Dundee) said she does not think there is a mission drift.
“It’s not like we’re just giving away the rights to things,” she said.
“We’re getting something in return. Some of these intergovernmental agreements may grant us easements. Or maybe it’s something we don’t have to take care of and maintain at a cost to the taxpayers. If another group comes in and we make an agreement that they take care of it, then there wouldn’t be an additional cost to the taxpayer. (The agreements are) beneficial to both the entity we’re making intergovernmental agreements with and to the people using our lands.”
Gillam cited the partnership between the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers volunteer organization and the forest preserve district. CAMBr has constructed a mile-long natural-surface, multi-purpose trail open to the public and suitable for walking, hiking and mountain biking at Raceway Woods Forest Preserve near Carpentersville. Members of CAMBr also help to monitor and maintain the trail on a daily basis.
“It was interesting because there were a lot of people very concerned about that,” she said. “And I actually pulled one of the CAMBr guys aside and said, ‘Tell me more about this. Why is it so important?’ He said over at Raceway Woods, you’ve got people making their own trails and they weren’t doing it right. So the goal was to go in and make proper trails so people wouldn’t cut down trees and make their own ramps. As far as I know, it’s been a success.”
Hoscheit (R-St. Charles) said the Elgin Area League of Women Voters “is a very narrow-minded group that represents a very small population of our consistency.”
“They’d be happy if we bought land and no one ever set foot on it and it would remain natural,” he said. “Which may be appropriate for some of the properties, but referendums have been approved by a much larger group who supports our mission and what we’ve done including our intergovernmental agreements.”
Hoscheit said that as elected officials and himself as president of the district, board members have an obligation to carry out the wishes of the majority.
“We’ve done exactly what the taxpayers have asked us to do, which is expand and have open space for passive and active uses,” he said. “If we had not carried that out, (referendums) would’ve been voted ‘no’ the first time, then the second time, then the third time and then again the fourth time. But even in this tough economic time, that’s not what happened. People are entitled to their opinions. But that group is not in tune with the majority of the people in the county.”
The report is available on the league’s website, www.lwvelginarea.org.