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Article updated: 5/7/2013 10:23 PM

St. Francis makes renewed push for DuPage land

By Robert Sanchez

Following years of failed attempts to acquire land for a parking lot from the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, St. Francis High School officials are appealing to a higher power: the Illinois legislature.

Officials at the private school in Wheaton are looking to get state law changed to make it possible for St. Francis to get a couple of acres in neighboring Belleau Woods Forest Preserve in exchange for land elsewhere in the county.

And at least one state lawmaker from DuPage says she's willing to help.

"I am 100 percent behind St. Francis acquiring -- in a fair and equitable way -- land for its parking needs," said state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton.

Still, district officials say they remain committed to giving none of the pristine woodlands to the landlocked school near Roosevelt and County Farm roads.

"We're not a land bank for any institution," forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti said. "The property was given to us for a specific purpose, and that's what we're going to keep it for."

St. Francis officials say they aren't abandoning the parking lot idea because it's a student safety issue.

"We want to protect our students' safety," school President Tom Bednar said. "We can't give up on that."

Bednar said there are about 185 students who now use the Target parking lot across Roosevelt Road. He said those students must cross the busy four-lane road, which handles about 22,000 vehicles a day during school hours, with the help of Wheaton police officers.

"IDOT has plans to widen Roosevelt Road," Bednar said. "So we anticipate seeing more traffic in front of us. We just want to be proactive rather than reacting to a serious accident."

Acquiring two of the 123 acres of Belleau Woods would allow the school to build a 250-space parking lot next to its campus. It's not possible to do a similar expansion to the east or south because of nearby developments, officials said.

Last week, two forest preserve commissioners -- Mary Lou Wehrli and Shannon Burns -- met with about 20 people to talk about the school's latest land swap proposal. The list of attendees included Ives and state Sen. Michael Connelly.

"The meeting was quite a show of force by St. Francis," Burns said.

Burns said there are multiple legal reasons why the district can't part with any portion of Belleau Woods.

For starters, 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.

"Owning Belleau Woods means we can never put anything on it," Burns said. "It has to stay pristine."

Burns said the district also is bound by the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act, which prohibits it from selling or leasing land to a private entity.

Nevertheless, Ives said she's willing to do what she can to try to get state law changed so the land swap could happen.

"St. Francis is a gem of a school," Ives said. "It provides a very good education, and the safety of these children should be of upmost importance."

Wehrli describes Belleau Woods as a gem for the district.

Completely undeveloped with no amenities or parking, Belleau Woods harbors a number of rare plants and wildlife. As a result, it is ranked among the district's highest-quality lands by forest preserve standards.

Wehrli said there are other solutions to the school's problem, including one suggestion to build a pedestrian bridge over Roosevelt.

St. Francis officials, however, point to studies that show teenagers don't use such structures.

"Most of the 16- and 17-year-olds are going to try to dash across the street rather than go up a flight of steps," Bednar said.

Ives said she believes the proposed parking lot is the most reasonable solution for everyone involved.

"St. Francis is not going away," she said. "It's a very small sacrifice to give up two acres of forest preserve land, especially when they (St. Francis officials) are willing to swap other land."

Even if state law is changed, the forest preserve commissioners can't be forced into parting with district land.

Burns said she fears what precedent would be set if the forest preserve agreed to a deal with St. Francis.

"It's an inviolate rule that we protect the land," Burns said. "If we let anybody get a piece of that, there would be other people saying, 'Just give us a little bit.'

"I will do whatever I can to help them get the parking issue resolved," she said. "But our land is really not an option."

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