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News Coverage of Kane Open Space Referendum

Elgin Courier News
April 11, 2017

Forest Preserve District moves ahead with plans for $50m referendum

Gloria Casas

New boat launches in South Elgin's Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve and Voyageur Landing Forest Preserve in Elgin and a complete design overhaul at Oakhurst Forest Preserve in Aurora are among the preserve improvement projects the Forest Preserve District of Kane County is planning thanks to the passage of a $50 million bond referendum question.

The Kane County Clerk's office unofficial results of the April 4 referendum question showed it passed by 52 percent while 45 percent opposed it. The Aurora Election Commission's unofficial results showed 53 percent of voters said yes, 47 percent said no, according to its website.

"We are obviously very happy," said Brook McDonald, executive director of The Conservation Foundation. "We knew it would be a tough one. Our polling data showed there was ample support for it but there was some ugliness at the end which impacted the final vote. I am glad we had some good cushion to buffer it."

There was some pushback on the referendum with Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen taking a public stand against it. Lauzen urged residents to vote no via a YouTube video outlying his concerns. But, he said he accepted the results.

"I always respect the majority vote that is how our system works even though a yes vote means the no voters have to pay the same share," Lauzen said. "Once the voter speak, I listen intensely. That's what we do. The issue has been decided."

The Conservation Foundation conducted polling last fall to determine whether there was support for a referendum and handled marketing it during the election. The 45-year-old nonprofit's mission is to preserve land and one way it does that is by helping forest preserve districts and park districts acquire land either through running referendum campaigns, helping with fundraiser or land donations, McDonald said.

"Some people were concerned about the taxes because once we explained the District was paying off previous bonds and the taxes on the forest preserve District's portion would be going down," people supported it, he said.

"People obviously enjoy the forest preserves," McDonald said. "What people seemed to like the best is the trail, the natural beauty and the habitat."

Now that voters have approved the referendum, the fifth since 1999, the District will follow a familiar process as with other referenda.

"The first part of the process is to work with our financial consultant, Spear Financial, to determine the best time to sell the bonds," Forest Preserve District of Kane County Executive Director Monica Meyers said.

Bonds could be sold this year, but the District would not begin taking in or budgeting referendum monies until the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Meyers said.

"It is not a bad thing (to wait), it allows you some additional time to plan things," Meyers said.

The additional time helps the District apply for grants and continue its long term planning, Meyers said. Projects can take two to three years to complete from the planning stage from the preliminary design to public input to engineering, she said.
District officials did not release information about what properties will be acquired using the $50 million referendum, but it did lay out its plans.

"We are always looking at property," Meyers said. The District is trying to "stay true to what the Land Acquisition Commission has established as priorities: connecting pieces to existing preserves, creating high quality habitats and connectivity."

"It gives us direction to stay focused on existing connectivity," Meyers said. "It is laser focused instead of looking everywhere. I think it provides the best opportunity to establish a high quality forest preserve system that way."

The District's plan to expand existing forest preserves, create connectivity and care for habitats is a good idea, McDonald said. "When people go to forest preserves they like trails and trees and plants but when you see a hawk or owl or deer, it is a very special experience."

Meyers said the referendum passage was exciting. "I think it is thrilling when you see the public support that is there," she said. "We work hand in hand with the Commission to determine what the community wants and what the needs are and try to provide it. It shows you are doing what they asked you to do. I think that is the exciting part."

Lauzen was perplexed because the vote was not consistent with all the complaints he hears from residents telling him their property taxes are too high and the thousands of people moving out of Illinois due to high property taxes, he said.

Voters "had the chance to protect property tax relief and they decided the other way, which again, is the people's decision," Lauzen said.

Gloria Casas is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.