Bob Oury always envisioned his 900-acre homestead near the Freeman-Kane Forest Preserve would one day merge with the surrounding natural setting as open space everyone would enjoy.
What he didn't envision was this: Five days before Christmas, a bulldozer rolled through the living room of his home, where his son James was living with his family. Oury watched as his son and 7-year-old granddaughter, Payton, grabbed whatever possessions they could hold as heavy machinery pulverized the rest of their belongings.
Today, all that remains is a bare patch of land just outside of Gilberts with a no trespassing sign in the ditch nearby. The Kane County Forest Preserve District had added 3.5 acres of land to the 20,819 acres it already maintained. It also gained a new enemy.
Not long ago, Oury and the forest preserve district counted each other as friends. Oury bought the property more than 30 years ago because he wanted to live in the countryside, surrounded by hills. In the early 2000s, Oury sold more than half his property to the district. The deal included a provision that guaranteed the district would have the first chance to buy the rest of Oury's land, including the parcel where James' home stood and a nearby plot where his own residence still stands, if Oury ever decided to sell. The agreement also included an unusual lease back of some of the land to Oury for personal use for nearly 10 years after the initial deal.
"At the time," the 79-year-old Oury said, "I figured I'd be dead in 10 years."
In 2007, Oury took out a loan of about $2.6 million for his company, Hampshire-based Rotec Industries. Oury used some of his remaining hay and horse farm as collateral. An error preparing the loan documents resulted in the 3.5 acres James lived on being included as collateral. The farm, including James' home, fell into foreclosure proceedings in March 2013. Oury lost a series of legal battles against that foreclosure, giving the bank ownership of the property.
The land then was auctioned, triggering the long-ago deal Oury made to give the forest preserve district the first shot at buying the land.
John Hoscheit, one of the longest-serving forest preserve district commissioners, found himself in an awkward position. He had shaken hands with Oury on the deal allowing the district to buy half the homestead and giving it first dibs on the remaining portion.
"I know Bob Oury. I respect him," Hoscheit said, noting that Oury's land is "a critical piece of property because it provides an access road into the adjacent preserve. He had a chance to win a court case, but he didn't win. Now we're a bad guy by circumstance because we really had no choice."
Despite the forest district's decision to purchase the property for about $1 million (according to Oury), that wasn't what hurt the most. It was the decision to raze his son's home.
Nothing was stopping the district from leaving the house on the property, he said, keeping ownership and leasing it back to Oury so his family could live there.
"That's what you could have done if you had a soul," Oury said. "This little family wasn't going to do anything to jeopardize the forest preserve. They could have been heroes to them with that house. Instead, they shredded it."
James Oury said the forest district took away the wedding gift his father gave him.
"I was born on this family homestead, and I grew to love it by taking care of it all these years," James Oury said. "They stripped me of that."
Hoscheit said the house was a liability. He knew Oury. He didn't know his son. And by the time it was clear to everyone the house would come down, Hoscheit said the Ourys had taken "all the guts out of the house" anyway.
"There have been some issues that have gone on with Mr. Oury's occupancy of the property over the years that haven't been smooth," Hoscheit said without being more specific. "They did a lot of things to that house. They took the furnace out. They had already done things to make it uninhabitable."
Oury now has a lawsuit pending against the bank, which will determine if he recoups his land.
For the forest preserve district, the fight with Oury comes at a crucial time. The district is asking voters next month to give them $50 million to buy more open space during the next several years. Oury said he will be one of the biggest opponents of that referendum in the final weeks leading up to it.
"The people have to know what happened to me is what these people do with their money," he said. "You should only buy land where the current owner willingly, and of his own volition, asks you to buy. No one would object to that. But if you want to side with a predator bank, then you're my enemy also. The forest preserve district has an enemy for life."