Imagine the prospect of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra coming to DuPage County.
On its face, who could argue with the idea? Think of the vaunted CSO playing beautiful music under the stars in a forest preserve near you. A picturesque and pristine setting. No annoying traffic whizzing by, few neighbors likely to be annoyed by the imposition. Problem is, it’s illegal.
That was the gist of a legal opinion issued this past week: A forest district can’t lease its land to a private concern for private purposes, even if it’s a “cultural treasure.”
So, it would take an act of the state legislature to amend the law. Would that be a huge ordeal or a slam dunk? Hard to say. The bigger question might be: Does the forest preserve even want to fight that fight? Lame duck forest preserve President Dewey Pierotti appears disinclined. He told our Robert Sanchez last week that the district shouldn’t be a land bank for any organization. Further, voters have repeatedly approved tax increases — but to preserve open space, not for development.
One of Pierotti’s would-be successors, Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli, running for president in the March GOP primary, echoed that sentiment. “I think any instance of taking over forest preserve land that is intended to be natural for pavement or construction doesn’t seem very worthy,” she said. However, Wehrli and Pierotti said, respectively, they’re open to discussion; a decision rests in the hands of the full forest preserve board. One of its members, Tim Whelan, already has taken the discussion a step further. A forest preserve hosting the CSO “comes more than close to the culture and educational part of our mission.”
Ah, the forest preserve’s mission. Rancorous debate on that topic almost two decades ago is the reason DuPage is the only county in the state with separately elected county board and forest preserve members. The county’s two landfills were a source of endless controversy when their owners kept voting to keep them open a few more years rather than letting them close so they could be turned into recreational hills, as was originally promised. That was likely a sound business decision made by county board members wearing their businesspeople hats. When the same people put on their forest preserve hats, the idea of allowing the continued dumping of garbage, the truck traffic, didn’t seem so pristine.
There also was the question of whether it was a good idea to run Diehl Road through part of McDowell Grove Forest Preserve in Warrenville to pave the way for the massive Cantera development that’s now a familiar part of the landscape. It’s a bustling area with a 30-screen movie theater, scores of restaurants and stores. Clearly, a sound business decision by the county board, but a guilt-ridden one when members put on their forest preserve hats.
With that as a backdrop, legislation was crafted, and back in the days when getting DuPage legislation passed in Springfield was pretty much a slam dunk, presto-change-o, a new level of government, a separately elected forest preserve district, was created.
So, have Pierotti and Wehrli drawn a line in the sand as far as keeping the forest preserves free of development? Our forest preserves are hardly free of buildings. Look at the three golf courses, Danada House, equestrian center, Mayslake Peabody Estate, Graue Mill. But there’s an important distinction: All of those amenities were part of forest preserve acquisitions. Inviting even a cultural treasure like the CSO onto forest preserve land would set a precedent.
Is it one people who wear forest preserve hats 24/7 are prepared to set? Stay tuned; it could get very interesting.
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