Master plan finally in place for Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

After three years of discussion and debate, a master plan for the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve is in place.

"It represents a compromise and a balance between two differing points of view," said Randy Seebach, director of planning and land preservation for the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the plan that has generated at times bitter debate regarding parking, land restoration and other issues.

"I remember the first meeting," said Commissioner Carol Calabresa, who chairs the district's land preservation and acquisition committee. "Opinions were so varied and so heated that we would need a professional facilitator."

The plan includes nearly 4.5 miles of new trails, 12 interactive exhibits, three scenic observation areas, five boardwalks and restoration of 73 acres of woodland savanna. It also calls for a reconfigured main entrance road with a 45-car parking lot, along with a north entrance and 20-car lot.

The plan estimates the cost of all public access improvements at $3.8 million.

The process for public access improvements and habitat restoration at the 250-acre former Army base along Lake Michigan began in 2012. It included public open houses, an online idea exchange, emails and letters. More than 500 written comments were received, along with input from residents of the adjacent Town of Fort Sheridan and communities nearby, as well as birders and others.

"This has been a very, very long process. This started out as a very expensive golf course," said Commissioner Bonnie Thomson Carter, chair of the planning and restoration committee and former board president.

In the late 1990s, the Department of the Army began transferring the northern portion of the former base property to the forest preserve district. At one time the district planned to build a new golf course to replace the original 9-hole course at the site but the idea was dropped due to high cost estimates and a general decline in golf play.

Once that idea dissolved the district was presented with a blank slate of sorts.

"People were very conflicted by promises that were made. This new vision came to shape through a lot of work and cooperation," Thomson Carter said. "It was a compromise. Not everybody got what they wanted but everybody got some ownership. We stuck with it."

Over the years, the district has restored wooded ravines and bluffs along the shoreline, installed a paved trail and outdoor educational exhibits, and made improvements at the cemetery.

The plan approved Tuesday calls for more repair and restoration of eroded areas along the Lake Michigan bluffs and ravines, structures to improve fish habitat and the removal of existing steel piers and concrete rubble.

Improvements to the parade grounds will be in another phase, Seebach said, and will require discussions with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Town of Fort Sheridan.

"It's a testament to perseverance and patience," said Commissioner Steve Carlson, who has been dealing with Fort Sheridan since he joined the board 13 years ago. "It's a pleasure to put this to bed."

Seebach said engineering and permitting for the project is scheduled for 2016, with construction expected to start in 2017.


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