Geneva's Prairie Green Preserve a long time in the making

  • Prairie Green Preserve in Geneva is 573 acres of undeveloped forest preserve that the city bought between 1998 and 2003. Much of the land is still being rented out as farmland.

      Prairie Green Preserve in Geneva is 573 acres of undeveloped forest preserve that the city bought between 1998 and 2003. Much of the land is still being rented out as farmland. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted5/31/2010 12:01 AM

In 1997, Geneva residents decided they wanted to save some farmland from commercial or residential development.

They envisioned a space where birds would nest, prairie grasses would wave, and water would flow. And where people could walk and bicycle, to be restored by communing with nature.

 

They shelled out $10 million for their dream, and Prairie Green Preserve is the result.

And while birds are nesting there, prairie grass is waving and water is flowing, the part about people visiting has been slow in coming.

The main culprit? Money, or the lack thereof.

Most of that $10 million went to buying land for the 573-acre preserve between 1998 and 2003. The city owns most of it; the Kane County Forest Preserve District owns 40 acres. It's on the west side of Peck Road on Geneva's northwestern edge, sandwiched between a Campton Hills park and the Geneva Park District's Peck Farm Park properties.

It is former farmland. And like many restoration projects in Kane County, the planners' goal is to return the land to the state it was in before farmers drained the wetlands.

The plan

The city was going to accomplish it by establishing a wetland bank and selling credits.

The concept plan for the preserve, approved by the city council in 2005, calls for 76 acres of wetlands.

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The site, a high-quality aquifer recharge area, is in the Upper Mill Creek sub-watershed of the Fox River Watershed, which stretches from the Stratton Dam in McHenry County to the Illinois River near Ottawa, from DuPage and Lake counties on the east to Lee and Grundy on the west. Developers who fill in wetlands in the watershed would normally have to provide compensatory water-handling on the sites of their projects. With a wetland bank, they can buy credits instead.

But it has taken Geneva 12 years to restore the first 35 acres of wetlands to a point where the Army Corps has authorized the credit sale. The land had to be surveyed, field tiles located, threatened and endangered species determined, soils mapped, earth moved, berms constructed, monitoring wells installed, data collected and reviewed.

The city still has to price the credits - they could go for $45,000 to $60,000 an acre, according to Dick Untch, the city's community development director.

And then, of course, there needs to be a buyer.

"There have been several inquiries," said Untch, whose department oversees Prairie Green.

Besides the wetlands, the site has several types of prairies. There will be observation areas and four miles of trails. There could be community garden plots, interpretive trails and a spot for environmental education. There will never be soccer or baseball fields, Untch said. The idea was to create a greenbelt on the edge of Tri-Cities development.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It is truly a nature preserve by design," Untch said.

What it has now: 35 acres of wetlands, some prairie land, an area where the city composts the leaves it collects from residents and 280 acres of farmland it rents out.

And about one mile of what is supposed to be a 1.5-mile bicycling and walking trail on its eastern edge.

That trail, built with the help of a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, dead-ends because it cost more to build than the city expected. Eventually, it is supposed to connect to Kane County's Mid-County Trail system.

There's nowhere to park except the shoulder of Peck Road.

Not that you are supposed to go in there anyway. Signs at several entrances clearly state only authorized personnel are allowed in.

Of course, people do walk around the barricades. Liquor bottles provide evidence of illicit partying, and people have ridden ATVs and four-wheel drive trucks there. One truck became stuck near the wetlands, damaging the property, Untch said. Bird-watchers from the Kane County Audubon Society have gotten permission to go in, and are thrilled to report spotting more than 40 kinds of migratory birds nesting on the site.

Money, money

What Prairie Green needs is greenbacks. There is no schedule for the rest of the work because there is little money.

The farming helps. For the last six years, the city has rented out several hundred acres. This year, it's getting $303 an acre, for a total of $85,000. That goes in to the city's Prairie Green Fund, from which it pays for maintenance of the prairies and wetlands.

As of now, that fund only has about $25,000 in it. The city's 2010-11 budget calls for spending about $50,000 on maintenance, including killing some invasive Canadian thistle, mowing and burning the prairies next spring.

Overall, it has spent about $2 million on the preserve. Some of that was from grants from the Grand Victoria Casino Foundation and the Kane County Riverboat Fund, which were used to purchase and plant seed for the prairies (the city is also taking leftovers from prairie restoration efforts at Fermilab). The Illinois Department of Natural Resources helped pay for the trail.

The goal, once the wetland credits are all sold, is to turn operations of the preserve over to the forest preserve district.

Monica Meyers, executive director of the district, noted it is not unusual for it to take years to develop a preserve. It can take up to five years for a prairie or wetland to become established, she said.

"Every property is unique," and it depends on what you want at a site, she said.

Should the wetlands start selling, or grants start pouring in, the next likely step is to construct the rest of the wetlands, Untch said, so the site could make more money.

The city is also "anxious," he said, to put in a parking lot on the northeast corner close to Bricher Road, and complete the first trail.

"That's the key thing we'd like to do next," Untch said.

Forming a citizens' committee to help plan a site next to the parking lot and do cleanup and plantings at the preserve is also on his to-do list.

Given the effect of the recession on the city's budget, it would be hard to make a case for having the city spend its own money to advance the improvements.

The city has put off replacing a 20-year-old fire truck the last two budgets, split a major road project into two budget years, and turned down a state grant for a midtown bike trail because it felt it couldn't afford to spend the matching dollars required.

At least the land's not going anywhere, and it has met its original objective - not having a bunch of houses and stores built on it.

"The site can evolve over time," Untch said.