Will County forest preserve vows to better care for land near homes

A fire pit sits behind a sign that establishes the boundary of the Will County Forest Preserve District at the Lower Rock Run Preserve in Joliet.  |  Supplied photo
A fire pit sits behind a sign that establishes the boundary of the Will County Forest Preserve District at the Lower Rock Run Preserve in Joliet. | Supplied photo

The Will County Forest Preserve District is prepared to do more to maintain its land adjacent to private homes in an effort to keep homeowners from encroaching on the preserves.

Last month, the district sent letters to 133 landowners who abut district land regarding 214 violations, 79 of which were for mowing on district property. Many the violations were discovered in Hammel Woods near Shorewood.

Board member Joe Babich, D-Joliet, said he received numerous calls and letters from constituents in that area who got encroachment letters that asked them to stop using and mowing forest preserve district land. At last week’s district board meeting, two of the residents in Joliet’s River Glen subdivision, whose homes back up to Hammel Woods, addressed the board.

“We have been maintaining this area for many years and now we get a letter,” Richard Rohder said, adding that the area in question, along a dry detention basin, has been used as a hay farm, which “is not what it was meant to be.”

Len Gornik said the grass on the site was only cut twice a year before it became a hay farm.

“Why not let us cut it? We’ve been cutting it for 18 years, and it wasn’t a problem. Why now?” he asked, also complaining that tall grass attracts animals, such as coyotes.

Forest preserve district director Marcy DeMauro said the area would be cut every other week, but the hay farm has a contract for this year. A local farmer was in “desperate need” of hay and was mowing it for that purpose, she said.

The tall grasses serve to filter pollutants out of stormwater before it runs off into the detention area between the homes, DeMauro said.

She agreed that the district has not maintained its boundaries over the years, but now that its period of rapid growth has slowed, her staff will take a more proactive approach to maintaining land that adjoins homes and enforcing border violations.

She said private landowners cannot mow forest preserve district land because it is a liability issue.

“It makes us vulnerable if they maintain it. We ask them to stop using what is not theirs,” DeMauro said.

“We should always be good neighbors and would ask people who live there to be good neighbors, too,” said board member Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort Township, adding that many people bought those houses because they were next to a forest preserve.

Board member Bob Howard, D-Beecher, proposed that district officials “step back” and focus on people who are dumping or building on district land. He suggested that the district consider creating transitional zone around their boundaries, but DeMauro said that would create a “dangerous precedent.”

Among the more serious land violations reported by staff include homeowners building on forest preserve district property — including sheds, patios, playsets, retaining walls and even a fishing pier — planting gardens and using it for personal storage. In Hammel Woods, there were 89 violations found, according to the district.

Staff eventually will visit all 82 preserves, and this year started with 12, DeMauro said, urging those who got violation letters to call the district office.

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