For some homeowners, having property adjacent to a forest preserve isn't enough. They decide to treat forest preserve land like it's their own.
So the DuPage County Forest Preserve District is doing what it can to take its land back.
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"It's unacceptable to allow people to take forest property and use it for their own purposes," said forest preserve Police Chief Tom Wakolbinger, adding that the district started an encroachment program years ago to combat the problem.
On Tuesday, forest preserve commissioners got an update on how often residential and commercial property owners are violating the law by encroaching on district land.
"We offer a variety of services to businesses and homeowners, including flood control, noise buffering, (and) increased property values to adjacent homes," said Kathleen Nowak, the forest preserve officer assigned to the encroachment program. "In order for us to continue to provide these services, we need cooperation from our neighbors. Unfortunately, this does not always happen."
Nowak said an average of 250 new encroachments on forest preserve land are found each year.
In some instances, it's simply a matter of a property owner removing the natural foliage. In the most egregious cases, property owners have built structures, made trails, stored material or dumped garbage and yard waste on forest preserve land.
About 120 of the encroachments discovered last year by the district weren't able to be resolved, according to Nowak. In fact, there are about 920 unresolved encroachments dating back to 1999, she said.
Wakolbinger said the numbers show "how quickly things can get away from us" if the district started ignoring encroachments.
Nowak said it's an ongoing challenge to address every encroachment violation because that responsibility is secondary to the department's patrol duties.
Still, forest preserve officials are continuing to do what they can to reclaim and rescue preserve property. Last year, they reclaimed 1.75 acres of land.
"Encroachments eat away at the district one bite at a time," Nowak said.
She stressed that one of the goals of the encroachment program is to educate property owners and get voluntary compliance. "Most neighbors voluntarily comply when they find they knowingly exceeded the boundaries," she said.