Dispute over cemetery land for runway comes to an end
The city of Chicago will pay a Bensenville church $1.3 million for land that included a cemetery, bringing to an end more than a decade of litigation surrounding the city's plans to expand O'Hare International Airport.
But the two sides on Friday had drastically different opinions of the settlement, reached during months of closed-door mediation sessions with DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Hollis Webster.
"Chicago, in my estimation, clearly lowballed this thing," said Randy Putman, the council president of the former St. John's United Church of Christ, which was sued by the city in 2007 in an attempt to acquire the St. Johannes Cemetery under eminent domain. "I think there was a lot of animosity toward the church because we kind of held up their whole airport expansion for a long time."
The city won a judgment in 2010 that awarded title and possession of the five-acre site, which is now being used for construction of a new runway as part of the city's $8 billion O'Hare Modernization Program. The remaining piece of the suit was just compensation -- and both sides said the matter was close to going to trial as early as December.
Putman said the city originally offered the church $630,000 -- the same number proposed when the suit was originally filed -- while the church wanted $2.85 million. After more meetings in October and November, they were able to come to terms for a final agreement.
Attorney Richard Friedman of the Chicago-based law firm Neal & Leroy, who represented the city in the eminent domain proceedings, said both parties reached the agreement amicably.
"If both attorneys sign it, yes, it's a good settlement," Friedman said. "It was going to trial. We were very far apart. When (the judge) asked us to meet with her, obviously you want to do that. You want to settle. I was a little doubtful we could reach a settlement simply because we were so far apart and because the parties were litigating for so long. She was both insistent and helpful."
The cemetery, started by German immigrants in 1849, was operated by St. John's as an active burial site until the city won control of the land.
Putnam said he personally would have liked to see the compensation portion of the lawsuit go to trial. But members of the church council thought otherwise since it "wasn't worth risking" coming out with less than $1.3 million, he said.
"It was basically that we grudgingly accepted it," he said.
St. John's merged with two other churches in Bensenville that are also part of the United Church of Christ. The new church, called Faith Community, will be the beneficiary of the settlement funds.
Putnam, the church's treasurer, said it isn't the congregation's intent to use the money just to pay legal bills and other expenses, but there have been discussions to donate a portion to nonprofit groups and missions.
Since the church owns two other properties where the former churches were located, proceeds from possible sales could be used to pay bills, Putnam said.
St. John's was just one party to multiple lawsuits surrounding the city's O'Hare expansion project, proposed in 2001. Bensenville and Elk Grove Village were also involved in previous eminent domain proceedings involving Chicago's attempt to acquire land for the project.
"We were not happy to go into this. We were not happy that we had to fight this whole O'Hare expansion for 10 years," Putnam said. "The feeling, you know, is that if the parents of the former mayor of Chicago were buried out there, this cemetery would never have been moved."
A total of 1,494 bodies were relocated from St. Johannes to various cemeteries, many in the suburbs, according to Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the city's Department of Aviation.
To a degree, the next of kin had some choice where the bodies could be relocated and some were moved out of state, but each case was handled individually, Cunningham said.
Putman said some 600 graves were moved to Eden Memorial Park cemetery in Schiller Park after family members could not be located or the remains could not be identified.
The new runway being built on the former cemetery land -- called 10-Center/28-Center -- will become the eighth runway at O'Hare when it is complete in October. There are plans for two additional runways and an extension of an existing runway, while two existing runways will be decommissioned, Cunningham said.
In the end, O'Hare will have eight runways: six east-west and two crosswind. The project is scheduled for completion in late 2015.