Regional public safety facility pitched for former Route 53 extension property

Greenway advocates say cooperative planning needed to decide future uses, look of defunct Route 53 corridor

An open area in Long Grove behind Countryside Fire Protection District’s satellite station on Midlothian Road hasn't changed in generations.

“It’s been there vacant — just corn fields — for many, many years,” said Chuck Smith, chief of the Vernon Hills-based fire district.

Smith would like to acquire the 34 acres to build a regional public safety training facility. His idea has support from several local entities and some state lawmakers.

But as he makes the case, Smith says he realizes the future use of the property is a sensitive topic.

Countryside Fire Protection District wants to build a regional public safety training facility on a 34-acre portion of the land once set aside for a proposed extension of Route 53. Courtesy of Countryside Fire Protection District

“We’re just trying to work with everybody to make this come to fruition,” he said.

While the idea has merit that location likely will be a tough sell for various interests pursuing a greenway for the corridor from Long Grove to Grayslake.

“Now is not the time to try and fragment this greenway,” said Pam Newton, chief operating officer in Hawthorn Woods.

Farming has been the only activity on the land south of the junction of Midlothian Road and Route 83 because it was earmarked as part of the controversial proposal to extend Route 53 into central Lake County.

The idea percolated for more than 50 years before being dropped in 2019 because of disagreements over the cost and size of the road, its perceived benefit, potential environmental damage and a lack of consensus along the proposed 12-mile path between Long Grove and Grayslake.

What remains is a corridor of land owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The proposed state budget includes $1 million to create a master plan for the Route 53 right of way as a greenway or state park.

  The Countryside Fire Protection District wants to build a regional public safety training center on a portion of the former right of way for the Route 53 extension in Long Grove near its satellite fire station. Paul Valade/

Countryside is seeking an agreement with IDOT to transfer 34 acres for a regional facility that would benefit multiple agencies and jurisdictions, Smith said.

The facility would offer enhanced training for first responders and public works agencies, a place where they would develop skills to handle emergencies and heavy equipment, according to a project brochure.

Primary users would be fire, police and emergency medical services for specialized training such as trench/confined space and high-angle rescues. Canine, search and rescue and drone training also would be available. Secondary users could include large vehicle training for local agencies.

Regional Training Facility Flyer

“It’s unique. It serves the entire county; it’s not one interest,” Smith said.

The centrally located facility would allow for coordinated training among agencies and other benefits, he added.

Smith said the property being sought is “off the beaten path” to the east and isn’t directly on the greenway route.

“It’s really a big open space that wouldn't be an eyesore because of where it’s located,” he said.

However, communities and environmental groups are unified on a greenway concept as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should be planned in unison.

“The only way this greenway is going to work is if we all work together,” Newton said. “Now is not the time for individual interests.”

Barbara Klipp, executive director of Midwest Sustainability Group and a member of the Green Corridor Coalition of several environmental interests, agrees.

“The state is just beginning to plan for the proposed greenway, and protecting the land for public access has become the unified goal of that effort,” she said. “Proposals like Countryside’s must be considered as a part of the community planning process for this great new conservation and recreation area.”

How it shakes out is to be determined.

State Sen. Dan McConchie, a Republican from Hawthorn Woods, introduced a bill authorizing IDOT to transfer the land to Countryside for $1.

On Feb. 21, Gov. J.B. Pritzker presented a proposed state budget that included $1 million to develop a master plan for the Route 53 right of way.

At the time, state Rep. Dan Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat, said he strongly supported Countryside’s proposal to use a “small portion” of the corridor for a facility that will improve public safety.

He later said a decision on whether the land transfer takes place and under what conditions will be subject to “many conversations” between all Lake County legislators and the Pritzker administration.

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