Almost four decades ago, Wheeling annexed prime real estate at the intersection of Lake-Cook Road and Milwaukee Avenue. The village later built a floodwater channel winding through the southern edge of the 17-acre property, essentially creating a moat blocking access to the land.
It's been vacant ever since.
Today, the parcel is the center of a simmering dispute: Should the village build a bridge providing access to the site -- as landowners and local developers Mark and Vivian Smith want -- or wait for concrete development plans to emerge before spending the money?
The Smiths argue the time is now, because a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, that could pay for the bridge will expire soon.
In a TIF district, new property tax revenue generated from development is put into a fund exclusively used to reinvest and improve the area, rather than paid to local governments.
The North Milwaukee-Lake Cook TIF, which includes the 17-acre site and the Smith family's Prairie Park condominiums, expires in 2023.
"You don't have the luxury of when," Smith attorney Al Stavros said. "You're late coming to the dance. You owe the bridge."
According to the 1979 annexation agreement, the village promised the previous landowner a bridge in exchange for 3½ acres needed for the flood-prevention channel.
However, acquiring the land and getting state and federal permits for the channel delayed its completion until 2001. That was two years after the agreement requiring Wheeling to build a bridge expired, village attorneys say.
Village leaders do not oppose building the bridge. In fact, budget plans include funding for it. The question is whether the village should spend the money before a plan for the property is in place.
The estimated $1.2 million bridge would take about a year to design and build, Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said.
Last week, the village board was deadlocked on whether to wait or start, with Village President Pat Horcher casting the tying vote during an informal poll. Horcher wants a specific plan for the property before spending TIF funds.
"I can't get past it's a bridge to nowhere," Horcher said.
Trustee Dave Vogel -- who was absent last week and could prove to be a tiebreaking vote -- didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Mark Smith says the lack of access is hurting chances for development and he can list several groups that have shown interest in the property before leaving in part because the bridge hasn't been built.
"I'm slamming my head against the wall right now because I don't understand what they're doing," Smith said.
The Smiths and the village have had a symbiotic relationship. The family has invested heavily in the community, most notably building the Prairie Park condominiums south of the vacant property. The village has given them $10.5 million in TIF funds, largely to help complete the condos as the family struggled to finish the project after the Great Recession in 2008.
While both sides indicate they want to avoid litigation, it appears they are researching their legal options. The Smiths' attorney warned of potential costs should the dispute go to court.
"Nobody wants litigation," Stavros said. "I didn't bring up the word 'lawsuit.' Unfortunately, if that's where it goes, there's going to be a trial tax on this."