Cook County forest district poised to regain 400-acre Barrington Hills farm, but foreclosed owners hope hemp crop can bail them out
Monday, June 24, 2019
by Robert McCoppin
A rider uses the ring at Horizon Farm in Barrington Hills in 2016. The Cook County Forest Preserve District bought the land in 2013 after it fell into foreclosure, briefly opening it as a preserve before facing litigation from the foreclosed owners. It's expected to become a preserve again after a new court ruling. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
One of the largest pieces of open land available in Cook County, a 400-acre horse farm in Barrington Hills, is expected to become a forest preserve again, after a court ruling granting foreclosure of the property.
That is, unless a plan to grow cannabis on the site interferes with the process.
Horizon Farm, consisting mostly of rolling pasture along Algonquin Road west of Illinois Route 59, has been in litigation since shortly after a private sale in 2006. Richard Cannon and his wife, Meryl Squires Cannon, borrowed $14.5 million from Amcore Bank to buy the land.
After the property fell into foreclosure once before, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County bought the farm for $14 million in 2013, and briefly opened it as a preserve, but the Cannons fought in court to keep the land.
In her ruling Friday, Cook County Judge Margaret Ann Brennan ripped the Cannons for litigating rather than paying their debt.
“To this day, the Cannons have not re-paid so much as a cent of that $14.5 million,” the judge wrote. “Despite the Cannons’ contention that Amcore misrepresented the terms of the agreement ... the Court did not find the Cannons’ testimony to be worthy of the Court’s trust or belief.”
Richard Cannon said the couple will appeal the ruling. In the meantime, he said, the entity they formed to hold the property has filed for bankruptcy, and is growing hemp there as a proposed way to pay their creditors.
“We’re hoping the court will give us a couple of months to prove we can pay things off,” he said.
The state just legalized hemp and began licensing its general production effective this year. Hemp comes from the same cannabis plant as marijuana, but has negligible THC, the part of pot that gets users high. Instead, it can be used to make fiber or the recently popular CBD oil.
But the Cannons’ legal opponents, including Chris Carmichael, attorney for the forest preserve, say hemp production is just another last-ditch gambit to avoid giving up the property or paying the debt.
Robert McGinley, a member of the family that sold the property and provided a loan for the Cannons to buy it, said he felt vindicated by the ruling. The judge noted that the family could have taken the Cannons’ $2 million in earnest money, but chose to lend them money to close the deal.
“The Cannons repaid that kindness with over a decade of litigation,” Brennan wrote.
In an email, McGinley commented, “For 12 years they have remained on the property and have never paid the loans or property taxes on it. That should tell you something right there. … There was no talk of any problems with the deal until they defaulted on the loan a few years later.”
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County issued a statement welcoming the ruling. A foreclosure auction for the property was set for July 29, at which point any buyer would have to outbid the district. Officials expect to take possession of the site before the end of the summer, which would be its largest new property since 1968.
The site includes meadows, wetlands and small streams, and open habitat for grassland birds. After reassessing the site, where farm buildings have fallen into disrepair, the district plans to reopen it for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Officials called this a “unique opportunity” to protect a rare plot of open land.