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Article posted: 3/20/2013 5:41 PM

District 41, Wheaton College at odds over 15-acre site

By Christopher Placek

A dispute is brewing between Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 and Wheaton College over property near the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton border.

District 41 has its eyes on the 15-acre site for a new junior high school, but the land is owned by Wheaton College, which says the property isn't for sale.

Now District 41 officials have indicated they may pursue eminent domain proceedings to acquire the land.

The district has been looking for space to build a new junior high for more than two years in an attempt to reduce overcrowding at its five schools. A real estate and land planning consultant hired by the school board found the property in question at 1825 College Ave. on the north side of the street just west of Kenilworth Avenue. It is within the west-central portion of the school district and less than a mile from Hadley Junior High.

District officials said in a news release that after searching for a parcel, the Wheaton College property is the only appropriate site.

The college uses the space, which it defines as its "east campus," for faculty art studios, a campus maintenance workshop, warehouse storage for library archives and equipment, and the Community School of the Arts. It also leases space to not-for-profit Christian ministries. The fields are used for sports team practices and intramurals.

College spokeswoman LaTonya Taylor said the college's plans for the land could include undergraduate and graduate academic use, athletic facilities and student housing. The college purchased the site in 1997.

"We've communicated with the district that selling the property is not a viable option," Taylor said. "We're very resistant to any efforts to take the property through eminent domain."

District 41 spokeswoman Julie Worthen said the district could pay for the land with reserve funds and, so far, the board has designated $3 million out of the $18.8 million reserve fund for that purpose. The $3 million amount "is not an offer figure," Worthen said, and it could be increased.

But the college has a different interpretation. A news release it issued this week stated the $3 million figure -- were it to be an offer -- would be "a significant undervaluation of the property." The college has estimated its property to be worth more than $20 million.

Superintendent Ann Riebock has been talking with college officials since June 2012, but those conversations haven't produced much agreement. The school board plans to vote April 8 to make an offer on the property, but if the college doesn't want to sell, the board may then decide to pursue eminent domain.

Both sides maintain they would have a strong case if the matter were to go to court.

The college says its First Amendment rights prevent the taking of the property by eminent domain. And it says the district must prove taking the property furthers "a compelling governmental interest" and is the "least restrictive means" of furthering that interest.

The district news release states legal counsel has indicated the district will likely prevail in court.

"The (board) feels there is a clear need for the land and may pursue the property through all appropriate means," the release states.

District 41 officials have indicated they plan to pursue a tax increase to build a new school in 2015. The current junior high school could be converted into an elementary school and also house early childhood preschool and dual-language programs. And a new school would allow the district to eliminate 32 portable classrooms districtwide that house about 500 students, officials said.

The district had considered building a new elementary school on a vacant site it owns at First Street between Forest Avenue and Park Boulevard, but officials determined it to be "small and poorly located." That site once housed Spalding Elementary School, with room for as many as 300 students, but it closed more than 30 years ago when enrollment dipped and finances were in decline. The building was rented out until it was demolished in 1997.

The district will hold a community forum on the issue from 7 to 8:30 p.m. April 3 at the Hadley library, 240 Hawthorne Blvd.

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