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...and a Belated Land Grab

Monday, February 02, 2004
Chicago Tribune

As Cook County Board President John Stroger pushes for higher taxes to support a fat-and-happy budget, consider a curious legal battle the county is waging at his behest. Victory for Stroger would not mean victory for taxpayers.

At issue is whether the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District had the authority to sell 24.5 acres of surplus land it owned in Hinsdale. The TB district sold the old sanitarium property at County Line Road and 55th Street in 2002 to a developer, Edward R. James Partners, for just over $15 million. The developer, with village approval, plans to build single-family homes on the property.

But the county has filed suit in an attempt to cancel the sale. The county argues that the TB district overstepped its authority in selling the land. Stroger wants the land for the Cook County Forest Preserve--a governmental unit with big problems managing the property it already has.

It's bad enough that we have one branch of county government suing another, with taxpayers footing the bill for both sides.

Even worse, Stroger's forces continue to contest the sale even though Cook County Circuit Judge Richard Billik ruled in September that the county had no case. The county has appealed, which is a foolish waste of time and money.

This was no quickie deal consummated in the dead of night. Stroger and the county board were given every opportunity to weigh in on it, right up until the land sale.

As early as June 1, 1999, the TB district notified the County Board that it was considering some sort of development on the property. In letters dated July 13, 2000, and Oct. 3, 2001, the district advised the County Board of its continued interest in developing or transferring the property, according to Billik's ruling.

The TB district hired a marketing agent that sent more than 30 requests for proposals to developers. The district offered the land to government entities including Hinsdale, which declined to buy the land partly because it's near a 52-acre municipal park. Evidently, village trustees preferred to get the TB district property out of government hands and onto the tax rolls.

On May 29, 2002, the TB district board passed an ordinance authorizing the sale, finding the land fulfilled no purpose related to fighting tuberculosis. Finally, the TB district notified the county board after agreeing to sell the property but months prior to closing the deal on Oct. 28, 2002, the court found.

There is no evidence that Stroger or any other county official raised any objections until long after the closing, or "did anything other than to create an impression that it acquiesced" with the sale, Billik found. By the time the county sued in April 2003, the developer had paid for the land and Hinsdale had approved a demolition permit to make way for new homes.

An aide to Stroger said they never knew about the plans. If that's true, it's an astonishing admission that they were fast asleep.

The county should withdraw its legal challenge, and the $15 million should be used to abate property taxes collected for the TB district. It is unconscionable for Stroger at this late date to attempt to force the TB district to renege on the sale, return the $15 million and forget about collecting tax revenue from the development. If that happens, you can bet the TB district will be served with a new batch of papers--this time a lawsuit by the developer seeking damages.

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