May 31, 2011
UPDATE: The proposal to allow the Blue Park Gun Club the use of Forest Preserve District property for its operations was withdrawn, after significant urging from the Friends of the Forest Preserve. Cook County Commissioner Joan Murphy, one of the sponsors of the resolution, withdrew the proposal when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she would not support the issue. Commissioner Murphy also indicated that the proposal lacked support from other commissioners. As discussed in this blog post, the Civic Federation opposed the proposal because allowing the private use of District property goes against the mission of the District, which is to preserve its holdings for the public’s use.
It is possible that the Blue Park Gun Club may continue its operations, either by relocating or possibly by leasing land from the Forest Preserve District, but that arrangement could be complicated by the District’s land-leasing policies.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is a unit of government legally separate and distinct from the government of Cook County. The District is managed by a separate staff, and a General Superintendent oversees the District’s operations and eight departments. However, the District is governed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners and the President of the Cook County Board serving in a separate legal capacity as the Board and President of the District. Thus, the two governments share the same elected officials.
In 2008 the Civic Federation and the Friends of the Forest Preserves issued a report calling for the creation of a separate board to oversee the operations of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The report highlighted the conflict of interest that arises from asking the same Commissioners to consider economic development issues in one capacity and land preservation issues in another. The report also noted the lack of time the board had to address Forest Preserve District issues due to their duties overseeing the rest of Cook County’s operations.
Recently, the Real Estate Committee of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County voted 8-6 with one commissioner voting present to allow the Blue Park Gun Club to continue to use 4.75 acres of District land for its firing range, despite the objections of District Superintendant Arnold Randall. The gun club, which owns the property and building that its members shoot from, is adjacent to Forest Preserve District land, which the club has used since the 1960s as its range for target practice and skeet shooting. The matter is expected to go to the full District Board for a vote at its next meeting on June 2, 2011 at 10 A.M. in the Cook County Board Room, 118 North Clark Street, Room 569.
The property that the club shoots onto once belonged to Cook County, but was given to the Forest Preserve District in a complicated property and fund transfer arrangement. The Cook County/District Commissioners transferred funds from the District to Cook County in 2007 to help fill a gap in the County’s budget. That move was characterized by then-Cook County Board President Todd Stroger as repayment for fund transfers made to the District in 2001 and 2002. As part of the final agreement for the $13.3 million monetary transfer in 2007, the County agreed to shift $13 million worth of land to the District. In 2009 the County transferred 176 acres around Oak Forest Hospital to the District, which was valued at $15.1 million. The District paid the County the difference of $1.8 million.
The private use of District property runs contrary to the mission of the District, which is to preserve its holdings for the public’s use. Moreover, the approval of the use of District land by the Blue Park Gun Club illustrates the inherent conflict of interest dual-duty Commissioners experience because of the competing interests of the District and Cook County.
Efforts to transfer Forest Preserve land holdings to private companies or other municipalities have been made before. The Cook County/District Commissioners considered a proposal by a steel mill to use District land, transferred District land to the Village of Rosemont in 1999 and granted a permanent easement to the Village of Morton Grove in 2000.
Allowing the use of District land by the Blue Park Gun Club, a private interest, sets a dangerous precedent for future transfers of District property. As the Chicago Tribune said in this editorial, “We appreciate that the intense development of metro Chicago has made it difficult for park districts, businesses and, yes, gun clubs to find empty property. Too many interests increasingly see forest preserves as land banks from which they can take, or borrow, acres.” The Civic Federation agrees with the Forest Preserve staff and Friends of the Forest Preserves that this request should be rejected.
To read more about the Federation’s work to promote the creation of a separate board for the Forest Preserve District, please click here. The issue was also discussed in the Federation’s Cook County Modernization Report.