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updated: 3/1/2011 5:40 PM

Lake Co. forest preserves consider more big buys

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Despite a down market, the Lake County Forest Preserve District continues as a major player in real estate, courtesy of voter approval two years ago of taxpayer backed bonds for land purchases.

Proposals to be considered this week by the land acquisition and finance committees and by the full board on Tuesday involve three properties at a total cost of more than $18 million. The acquisitions would allow the district to create a new preserve and expand two others.

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At 277 acres and $16 million, the Smith property on the north side of Stearns School Road between Route 45 and Hunt Club Road in Warren Township is the big buy and a "real special site," according to Tom Hahn, the district's executive director.

"It would be a free-standing preserve," he said. "What is very unique and wonderful is Mill Creek, the creek itself, runs right through the middle of it."

Information provided to commissioners states the purchase would protect the southern part of Mill Creek, which runs through the Rollins Savanna and Fourth Lake forest preserves before entering the Smith property.

"It's an incredible piece of land," said forest Commissioner Steve Carlson, whose district includes the parcel. "It's something I've been fighting for for years."

Restoration of the stream corridor would enhance water quality, improve the habitat for fish, protect the flood plain and create wetlands that could reduce the impact of storms, according to the district.

As proposed, the contract requires the district to buy another 6.5 acres at $58,000 per acre if the owner wants to sell in the next four years. It also states the district will not file eminent domain proceedings on any of the 1,700 acres owned by the seller in Lake County.

Though among the leaders, the Smith sale would not be the single most expensive district purchase. That distinction goes to the $23.5 million Nasr property, which was part of a $38 million package of more than 864 acres announced last May.

In the northern part of the county, the district is proposing to buy about two acres on Route 45 known as the Fallon property in Antioch Township. The property is bordered on three sides by the Raven Glen Forest Preserve and would allow the district to prevent an incompatible use on that property in the future.

"It's right on our entrance," Hahn said. "This will be a nice scenic enhancement - it should look more like a forest preserve."

To the southwest, the third purchase involves about 38 acres in Fremont Township known as the Diebold property. The $2.1 million purchase on the south side of Erhart Road would expand the Ray Lake Forest Preserve to 555 acres.

That portion has no buildings on it and has been used by the family farming operation as pasture land. The contract calls for the property to be licensed for farming purposes for five years with an option for another five.

The land is less than half of the dairy operation, which has been in the Diebold family for more than a century and is one of three remaining in Lake County.

"These were all important properties for us to acquire," Hahn said. "After these transactions, there would be about $56 million left out of the $148 million allocated to land acquisition."

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