Will County finds property owners using forest preserve land

Will County finds property owners using forest preserve land
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY slafferty@southtownstar.com May 18, 2014 10:38PM

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 60-foot-long pathway leads to a wood pier at a quiet pond behind a Homer Township home.
A “no trespassing” sign warns the public to keep out, but there’s a problem — the sign has no legal power behind it. The pier has been built on public land.
It’s one of 214 illegal encroachments that were discovered on 113 sites when the Will County Forest Preserve District staff walked along the boundaries of 12 of its 82 properties this spring.
Letters were sent May 12, informing property owners that they’re illegally using forest preserve district land.
Sometimes the site is not marked, but generally the forest preserve district marks its boundaries with metal signs bolted to poles, which occasionally get “lost,” said Marcy DeMauro, the district’s executive director.
Most of the violators (79 of the 214) mowed the district land, while 52 others dumped wood and yard waste or placed pipe or fencing on it and 34 used it for personal storage, mostly sheds, DeMauro said.
Staff also discovered gardens, patios, fire pits, playsets, retaining walls and even drainage lines installed on the district land.
“It’s unbelievable,” DeMauro said of what’s been found on district property, citing the fishing pier with its sign as the most egregious example discovered by the staff. “It’s all illegal activity, an unauthorized use, private use of public land.”
While mowing may seem harmless, it actually destroys a natural resource, a wildlife habitat that includes insects, DeMauro said, and if those who dump grass clippings have used chemicals and pesticides on their lawns, that, too, gets dumped in the preserves.
“Our mission is conservation,” she said. “The preserves protect our natural resources. That is our premier consideration.”
There are also legal and liability issues to consider when someone uses forest preserve district property, DeMauro said.
“We have to make sure our property is safe,” she said.
As the district has expanded over the years to about 22,000 acres, its staff can’t patrol boundary areas as much as before. During the growth spurt in recent years, most violations were noted by neighbors who called to complain, according to DeMauro. Now that the district’s growth has slowed, staff has more time to be proactive in finding encroachment, she said.
This year, 89 violations were found in Hammel Woods Preserve near Shorewood, and most involved mowing. The Lower Rock Run Preserve near Joliet had 45 encroachments, such as gardens, swing sets and sheds.
When a property violation is found, photos are taken and the boundaries are verified. A letter then is sent to the property owner, requesting that they immediately discontinue mowing or dumping and remove any illegal structure within 45 days. Property owners are urged to contact the forest preserve district if they question the violation.
District staff will reinspect the property, and if the violation continues, a second letter is delivered by sheriff’s police with a warning or a citation, DeMauro said.
“The process is not punitive. We are interested in compliance. Some are more complicated, such as draining issues, and may take longer,” she said.
The district tries to work with people, she said, recalling one year in which it allowed a vegetable garden to remain until the end of the growing season. “We encourage people to call and talk about it, especially if they believe their property or their ownership has been misidentified. Sometimes we do a survey to prove it’s our land,” DeMauro said.
“We (inspected the boundaries at) 12 preserves this year and plan to do all 82 over time,” she said. “It will take awhile. We want to make sure it’s right.”

Source: Will County News

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