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Residents have say on Forest Preserve District plans, programs

Springbrook Prairie, part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, is set upon 1,867 acres and is home to one of the largest communities of grassland birds in the region. | File photo
Springbrook Prairie, part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, is set upon 1,867 acres and is home to one of the largest communities of grassland birds in the region. | File photo

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County began the process of creating a strategic plan by holding the first of a series of public forums at the Naperville Municipal Center recently.

“This is the first time we’ve done this,” Susan Olafson, Public Affairs director for the district, said. “We’re looking to get community feedback to develop a strategic plan to take this district forward.”

Step one in the process is gathering the community’s input, both from the public forums and from an online survey that can be accessed at the district’s website, dupageforest.org.

The online survey must be completed by May 15 and the district’s goal is to have a rough draft of a plan ready by July 1.

The public forums are the first of their kind for a very good reason — the district has never before formulated a strategic plan.

“Before, it (planning) was internally driven,” Olafson said.

The effort comes as the district approaches a crossroads between past efforts to acquire open land and protect open space, and its future in what is increasingly a built-out county with little available land left.

Moreover, the strategic plan comes near the end of two decades of the leadership of Forest Preserve District President D. “Dewey” Pierotti, who shepherded the district through its separation from the County Board in 2002 and significant land acquisition, financed primarily from referendums in 1997 ($75 million) and 2006 ($68 million).

During Pierotti’s tenure, the district acquired almost 2,800 additional acres, bringing total Forest Preserve District land to 25,000 acres.

The fact that financial planning promises to be a crucial part of the new strategic plan is not lost on District 5 Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli, who represents most of Naperville and the DuPage County part of Aurora.

“They (residents) were asked to participate and the survey is still online,” Wehrli said, while stressing the value of community input. “The strategic plan will help the Forest Preserve District prioritize its funding.”

The district signed on marketing consultant Davidoff Communications to assist with the survey and strategic plan and company founder John Davidoff led about 30 Naperville residents through 90 minutes of questions designed to tap into their thoughts about what the future should be for the district.

The residents praised the Forest Preserve District’s performance in several areas, including the acquisition of land, maintaining natural resources, bike trails and historic structures.

Those present also gave high marks to the district for being responsive to residents, implementing programming and maintaining a quality website.

But participants also suggested that the district should focus more of its efforts on acquiring what land is left before it is scooped up by real estate developers.

Some also suggested that certain natural areas in the county need protecting.

“They really need to put more of an effort into their natural areas,” resident Joe Suchecki said.

Others suggested that the district had too many fee-based programs and that the fees seemed to be steadily increasing.

Also suggested was more emphasis on education, especially the historic nature of places like McDowell Woods, with its history of being home to Depression-era work sites and a World War II radar training facility.

Former Naperville City Councilman Don Wehrli had another type of education in mind, suggesting the Forest Preserve District educate residents on the value the district represented.

“They don’t realize how wealthy they are,” he said, before making a pointed comment on the habits of some residents. “They should pick up after themselves.”

Others suggested more partnerships with non-profits, making sure the district’s golf courses were profitable and connecting present trails with area trails outside the district’s boundaries.

Fearful that a trend toward organized activities might encroach on open space, preserving that space remained an issue with many in the room.

“Be careful about what we build in the forest preserves,” Rich Cullen said.

And finances loomed large, especially the prospect of pressure to reduce spending.

“Be aware of that as a possibility,” Ann Montgomery said. “I can see that question coming down the pike.”

By the end of the forum Davidoff had filled five poster boards with suggestions and criticisms and called the first outreach a success.

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