Route 53 extension: Hopes and concerns of those along the corridor

Second of two parts

The prospect of a Route 53 extension has been part of life in central Lake County for five decades.

Plans have come and gone. The debate over whether to extend the highway north from Lake-Cook Road in Long Grove to Route 120 in Grayslake has ebbed and flowed. Land has been set aside, but no exact configuration has been finalized.

The project is back on the table - including improvements on the east and westbound Route 120 and creation of a Route 120 bypass - with design possibilities that take into account environmentally sensitive areas.

The question remains: Is it a transportation and economic benefit the region can't afford to pass by, or an expensive dream that will never be built?

More than half the land in the proposed corridor is undeveloped - vacant land, farms and open water - and the intent is to build a four-lane, limited-access toll road that will fit the landscape. Those who live and work along the corridor know such a road would lead to big changes. And all are watching and waiting for an answer to what happens next.

We talked to some of those who would be affected by the project. Here are their stories.

The apple farmers

Josef and Helga Ziegler wonder if this version of the Route 53/120 extension is the one that ends their stay in a quiet country setting.

The on-again, off-again project, they say, has put their lives on hold.

They own Ziegler's Orchard near Grayslake, down a gravel drive off Bacon Road south of Route 120.

A hard right past the parking lot leads to the family home, situated on a rise with good views. It was built in 1973 and has become hidden in a stand of trees, many planted by Helga and Josef. Eleven varieties of apple trees wrap around the 15-acre homestead.

To the west, the landscape is open for miles. To the east, the Zieglers see the swath of open space splitting a neighboring subdivision as the corridor for one of two possible routes for the west side of the Route 120 bypass. Aerial views show that path would go directly through their house.

"We've had people who wanted to buy it, but they find out," Josef said.

The Zieglers learned about the extension years ago when a neighbor told them about a meeting regarding the proposal. The problem, they say, is the issue resurfaces from time to time but nothing happens. With the project still alive, they say they can't sell and don't want to make substantial improvements to the house or business.

"We have been held hostage for at least 17 years. We need relief one way or another," Helga said.

They used to fight the proposal but gave up, she said. Worn out from uncertainty, they just want an answer.

"It's an emotional thing. It really is," she said.

He's 76. She's younger but won't say by how much. They say they can't retire and have no choice but to stay.

"It's too much work," Josef said. "If I was 55, I wouldn't care whatever happened. But the clock is ticking."

Youth camp operator

Just to the west of the JCC Elaine Frank Apachi Day Camp on Old McHenry Road, near Hawthorn Woods and Long Grove, is a 2-acre stretch of vegetation - a buffer between the camp boundary and the proposed path of the Route 53/120 extension.

That the roadway would be so close was not viewed as a problem, said Gayle Malvin, director of day camping for the Jewish Community Center of Chicago. Rather, it was an opportunity for more business.

"We were aware," Malvin said. "When you're looking for land, there are obstacles along the way, and you have to pick the best property with the least barriers."

The JCC operates nine day camps in the city and suburbs. Eight years ago, it was looking for land in the Northwest suburbs to establish a full-service day camp with year-round programming.

Malvin was part of the search team that found the 40-acre parcel, which she describes as a "fabulous property" with protected wetlands.

"We were fortunate to find this property," she said.

The camp now serves Buffalo Grove, Vernon Hills, Arlington Heights, Lake Zurich, Mundelein and Long Grove.

If the proposal advances, she said, the JCC would need to determine the effect the road could have on the camp and create a plan to address it. But that time hasn't come.

"It's been on the board and off the board. It's been hard to keep up with what has been going on," Malvin said. "We don't know. We, like everybody else, are waiting."

The organic farmer

Past a field of kale, Swiss chard, onions and collard greens, and beyond the bee hives at Prairie Crossing Farm in Grayslake, is the potential path of the Route 53/120 project.

"We've known about the right of way since we've been in existence, 20 years," said Bradley Leibov, president and CEO of Liberty Prairie Foundation, which owns the farm within the Prairie Crossing community. "I think it's always been a fear ... because of the sheer scale."

The 100-acre organic farm has become an incubator of sorts for independent entrepreneurs who grow diverse crops and produce free-range eggs for the regional market. It also is the site of youth development programs, educational tours and community garden plots.

The private foundation is a self-described national leader in advancing local food systems and enhancing the natural landscape. And the farm, which supports five to seven businesses and dozens of jobs, was featured in a recent episode of the PBS series "Growing a Greener World."

Given the potential effects of salt, oil and noise on the land and water, a major road could "significantly decrease the marketability of our programs," Leibov said.

"If we don't have a working farm, we are going to find ourselves doing other types of environmental work," he said.

Leibov headed a group making recommendations to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board on long-term environmental protections along the corridor. He is aware of the environmental community's concerns and doubts that a palatable package to fund those protections can be assembled.

However, the proposed protections are on par with others that have been researched throughout the country and "will allow us to respond to some broader environmental challenges," Leibov said.

Prairie Crossing was developed by George Ranney, a former Inland Steel executive and head of Metropolis 2020 (renamed Metropolis Strategies), a Chicago-based regional planning group. Ranney also co-chaired the advisory group that in 2012 determined environmentally sensitive designs and other elements must be incorporated into the Route 53/120 extension if it is to be built.

Leibov acknowledged there is skepticism the recommendations will be followed.

"We have no illusions about the challenges ahead of us and the risk this road brings," he said.

The mayor

Long Grove's rustic downtown wouldn't take a direct hit from the Route 53 extension, but it certainly would be noticed in the town that for years budgeted funds to fight the proposal.

"It kind of bisects our community," Village President Angie Underwood said. "It will significantly change Long Grove, Hawthorn Woods and all the communities along the corridor."

Building the road will present challenges, especially to environmentally sensitive areas, such as Heron Creek and Surrey Marsh. Long Grove has considerable wetlands and conservancy areas that absorb floodwater, and there are concerns about disrupting those environments.

Wildlife fragmentation, runoff, noise and salt damage are among her concerns.

Long Grove is one of the towns working to recommend to the tollway board how to finance and design the road. That the community remains engaged indicates attitudes have changed to an extent. Long Grove officials realize the village isn't an island, Underwood said.

"The village is open-minded and trying to be part of the process while it's developing," she said. "If the road is going to go through, let's not put blinders on and make sure the concerns are heard and taken seriously."

She doesn't think a Route 53 extension necessarily would bring more visitors, but the village could benefit from new development.

"I see a lot of political will for this road to go through, and it's better as village president to be at the table and be part of the process rather than be in opposition," she said.

Underwood, who has lived in Long Grove for 16 years, said the general public has mixed opinions about the project but likely is unaware of how much work has been done in considering options.

"Most everybody who lives here has known about the possibility of the road, but potential buyers want to know what's happening," she added. "In some ways, it'll be a relief to people to know with certainty what's going to happen."

The county chairman

Down the road from the 280,000-square-foot FedEx Ground facility in Grayslake, near the top of the "T" that could be part of the Route 53/120 extension, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor sees open fields of opportunity.

"I think this land really shows you the impact this project would have on the area," he said. "A lot of this land is zoned commercial."

Lawlor and others agree that besides reducing congestion and saving commuting time, the new road could unlock economic development and diversify the tax base. It also may boost stalled projects, such as the Alter Group's proposed $750 million Cornerstone development, an upscale mix of business, retail and residential uses spanning 641 acres on either side of Alleghany Road at Peterson Road.

However, the influence of the new road would extend well beyond Grayslake, supporters say, and there has to be a balance between responsible development and environmental protection.

"This is indicative of why this project is so important," Lawlor said. "It'll provide the opportunity for both economic development, as well as an environmentally responsible way to build a road."

One area of concern is controlling development spurred by the road. Communities along the path envision more development than the road is designed to handle, Lawlor said. If the growth is unchecked, Lake County could face the same transportation problems the extension was meant to solve, he said.

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Rt. 53 extension goes to tollway board

Tollway puts Route 53 on front burner

How the Route 53/120 extension could be funded

Toll hike, county gas tax considered to fund Route 53

Long haul for Route 53 extension proposal

A last chance to end 50-year Rt. 53 extension struggle

Images: Route 53 extension path

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