A Cook County judge's ruling Wednesday put the Forest Preserve District of Cook County one step closer to taking over the 400-acre Barrington Hills horse farm and estate known as Horizon Farms.
Judge Thomas R. Allen ruled against the four plaintiffs, Horizon Farms owners Richard Kirk Cannon and Meryl Squires Cannons and Todd Baker and Wanda Dziopek, both of Chicago, who claimed the forest preserve district unlawfully inserted itself in a foreclosure action involving one of the largest privately held properties in Cook County. They claimed the district spent $14.5 million in public funds to acquire an interest in Horizon Farms from BMO Harris Bank, which initiated foreclosure proceedings against the Cannons in 2009 after they failed to repay a $14.5 million loan.
Announcing his ruling, Allen referred to the forest preserve district's initial efforts to purchase the property in 2013, when a lawyer for the district tried to buy the property from the Cannons for an unnamed client. The couple rejected the offer.
"They (the forest preserve district) came in and disguised themselves," said Allen, who called the behavior "unorthodox," "creative" and "underhanded."
But not illegal.
"I don't know what to make of that. Part of me says 'Welcome to the real world,'" Allen said, noting that after that initial effort failed, the forest preserve district approached the lender and purchased the note for $14.5 million.
Matt McBride, the plaintiffs' attorney, argued that while the forest preserve district can purchase property outright, it cannot purchase promissory notes or liens.
The Illinois legislature never intended the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to be in the foreclosure business, said McBride, claiming the agency overstepped its bounds.
Christopher Carmichael, attorney for the forest preserve district, argued that the law does not prohibit the district from acquiring property through defaulted mortgages which the district may purchase at its discretion. Carmichael acknowledged the foreclosure case against the Cannons is pending and might be resolved at a hearing Friday. If the forest preserve district prevails, the estate's title will transfer to the forest preserve district.
Carmichael suggested that the district intends to leave the property in its natural state for recreational use.
Forest preserve district representative Erik Varela said he was pleased with Allen's ruling but declined to say more while the foreclosure case is pending.
"I respect the judge's ruling but I strong disagree," said McBride, who indicated an appeal is likely.
Meryl Squires Cannon was visibly upset during the hearing. Afterward she expressed concern over the fate of the couple's horses, including new foals who are only weeks old.
"In this case, might made right," said Squires Cannon, who fears what happened to them might happen to other Cook County homeowners whose property the forest preserve district desires.
"Land owners watch out," said Richard Kirk Cannon after the hearing. "Homeowners watch out."