St. Francis Catholic High School officials say student safety is at the heart of their request to build parking, an access road and a football field in the neighboring Belleau Woods Forest Preserve.
But DuPage County Forest Preserve District officials say they're not inclined to turn over any of the pristine woodlands to the landlocked school at Roosevelt and County Farm roads.
School officials on Monday said they want to build 200 parking spaces in Belleau Woods to improve safety for nearly 200 students who currently use the Target parking lot across Roosevelt Road. They said those students must cross the busy four-lane road, which handles roughly 22,000 vehicles a day during school hours, with the help of Wheaton police officers.
In addition, more than 300 faculty, staff members and students already park on St. Francis property.
School President Tom Bednar said that's also a problem because many cars are turning into the parking entrance very close to the County Farm and Roosevelt intersection.
"It is dangerous for all involved -- students and commuters passing by our school," Bednar said. "We have sought to obtain adjacent property from Belleau Woods ... to enter our property from County Farm and Roosevelt that would use current traffic lights to regulate traffic flow and improve safety for all," he said.
A third portion of the proposal seeks part of Belleau Woods to build an athletic facility and stormwater storage for St. Francis. Currently, roughly 150 student-athletes must commute to area park district fields for practices and competitions.
Bednar said the school has no room to expand to the east or south because of surrounding developments.
"It is a project that many believe is necessary not only for St. Francis High School but for the residents of Wheaton, DuPage County and the thousands of commuters using Roosevelt," he said.
But forest preserve officials said the woods were given to the district in 1965 through an act by the Illinois General Assembly, which makes clear the land should not be developed except to enhance public recreation and enjoyment of the area.
Belleau Woods is completely undeveloped, with no amenities or parking. The preserve includes an upland oak forest, flood-plain forest, ephemeral ponds and wetland areas, and a small section of natural prairie. It is ranked among the district's highest-quality lands by forest preserve standards, based on its plant community.
DuPage forest ecologist Scott Kobal said Belleau Woods is an example of Illinois' natural heritage that cannot be replaced.
"Oak woodlands are rarer than the Amazon rain forest," he said. "You hear about stuff like the Amazon all the time, but a lot of these (plant) communities are globally in peril, too. You can plant trees in a field, but you're not going to replace a forest like this."
Forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr. said chances are "slim to none" that any land deal could go through, even though the district has been approached for years about the issue by both the school and powerful alumni who are now state legislators.
"We simply couldn't do this if we wanted to," Pierotti said. "We would have to go through all kinds of hurdles. They'd be asking us to take property that was donated to all the people of DuPage County and give it for the benefit of a small, private entity."
Pierotti said he's most concerned about the football field which, in conjunction with the parking lot proposal, could cover more than half of Belleau Woods.
"If maybe they just came with the parking, perhaps you would have to look at it one way," he said. "But the parking is just a small portion and they are looking at a field with stadium seating."
In order for the district to accept any agreement with St. Francis, guidelines require a land swap so forest preserve acreage remains the same or grows. Bednar did not offer specifics on areas the school is offering to the forest preserve, but said St. Francis could "discuss the possibility of a land swap that would add acreage to other forest preserve areas in DuPage County."
Ultimately, Pierotti said the forest preserve can't budge on Belleau Woods, even though the district has participated in other land swap agreements.
"We have requests all the time for people wanting our property and we take a very judicious position that evaluates every request on its own merit," Pierotti said. "We've previously exchanged property for school districts and cooperated on that. It's not that we're not open-minded, but we just couldn't do this."
As an alternative, Pierotti said the forest preserve has offered to work with St. Francis on transferring roughly $500,000 in grant money secured for the district by State Sen. Carole Pankau. Currently, that money is slated to be used for a pedestrian bridge over County Farm Road.
Pierotti said if Pankau is willing to transfer that money for a bridge or underground tunnel across Roosevelt, he would cooperate.
Bednar said the school is considering the option, but it is "not the optimal alternative."
"I would hope the safety of the human life would be the priority in the discussion as we seek to find ways that can result in a situation where the mission of the forest preserve is fulfilled and the lives of our students are protected," he said.