Lake County forest preserves wants to borrow $155 million for habitat restoration, land acquisition

After a year of consideration, Lake County forest preserve commissioners on Monday agreed to ask voters in November for approval to borrow $155 million for a variety of purposes, including habitat restoration and land acquisition.

Commissioners, during a joint meeting of the forest board’s operations, planning and finance committees, recommended asking voters whether the district should borrow not more than $155 million by issuing general obligation bonds.

A tax increase to pay the bonds would cost the owner of home valued at $300,000 about $33 per year, according to the forest preserve district.

An official vote will be taken June 12, but that’s considered a formality as there were no votes against on Monday with 17 of 19 commissioners present.

The vote was buoyed by preliminary survey results showing nearly two-thirds of respondents were willing to support funding $155 million. The money is “to acquire land and preserve forests and natural lands; protect, preserve and restore wildlife habitats, including providing air and water quality improvements; enhance flood control; improve hiking and biking trails and other recreational areas and infrastructure; and, enhance public access.”

In the 2024 budget policies and strategic action plan approved last June, commissioners directed staff members to put a referendum on the November ballot to fund land acquisition, habitat restoration and public access improvements. How much it would cost and how the money would be used was to be determined.

This will be the district’s first referendum since 2008, when two-thirds of voters allowed it to borrow $185 million. Last July, Executive Director Ty Kovach said that money was spent or spoken for and, in six years, expenses would exceed revenue.

The initial recommendation at that time was for about $155 million with $90 million directed toward habitat restoration and dozens of projects, and about $65 targeted for land preservation and acquisition.

“We spent a lot of time arriving at that number,” Kovach said.

The district in March approved about $20 million in limited bonds to acquire high-priority properties, but that is expected to be spent by the end of the year.

“We talked quite a lot when we’d get to this moment over the last several years,” Commissioner Paul Frank of Highland Park said. “I think this is going to empower the district to really lean into the mission.”

New bond funding is needed to continue the district’s mission to preserve natural and open space, restore and enhance native habitats for the benefit of people, plants and wildlife, and invest in passive outdoor recreation, according to Kovach.

About 80% of the 2008 referendum proceeds were used to acquire land in a buyer’s market. This time, the emphasis is expected to be on projects and initiatives to reduce operating costs and completing or starting other big projects on the to-do list.

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