Saturday, April 5, 2008

Friendly condemnation is anything but friendly

There was something about that property.

The house at 28541 Kedzie Ave. in eastern Will County has been a sore spot for local residents for a very long time.

That house and property is the site of the first condemnation lawsuit slated to make way for a new airport at Peotone for which neighboring residents are vehemently opposed.

The suit, filed in Will County Circuit Court shortly after the state submitted new airport layout plans to the Federal Aviation Administration, is being called a “friendly condemnation,” which is a means of acquiring property without objection by the homeowner.

In this case, the property belongs to Helena D. Hudgins, an 80-year old woman who lives in Chicago rather than in eastern Will County. She wanted to sell the property but didn’t have a clear title. Perhaps if she had lived there, she might have felt differently. She might have become friendly with neighbors. Despite the distance between homes, neighbors who occupy the five– and ten-acre parcels, peppered among the larger acreage farmsteads, there is a feeling of a neighborhood in the once peaceful, farming community. Perhaps if she had lived there, everything would have been different for everyone.

But instead, her son lived there. Donald Hudgins and his wife Katherine moved there to keep dogs – mean, fighting dogs, according to neighbors. The two were arrested a year ago, pleading guilty to drug charges in November.

For a time, the Hudgins’ dogs terrified the neighborhood, roaming the country roads, even attacking family pets. During the time the two stayed at the house, there had been reports of large dead dogs reportedly strewn about in ditches. Sheriff’s deputies said they had found the rotting remains of dogs in black plastic garbage bags along the roadside.

The couple was also involved in drugs. In March 2006, after a tip from a motorist that drugs were being sold at the Hudgins’ home, the two were arrested. Police confiscated more than a kilogram of marijuana, 35 marijuana plants, 100 grams of cocaine, and over $1,600 in cash.

Donald Hudgins already had a record, with a felony conviction in Cook County in 1998 for unlawful use of a weapon and a conviction of possession of a controlled substance.

A plea agreement sent the couple to jail – Donald for two years and Katherine for six months.

When the two vacated the property, neighbors were relieved that they would no longer be terrorized.

Then they head about the ‘friendly condemnation’ suit. Wondering how an act that allows the state to ‘take’ private property could ever be considered friendly, it represented a terror of a different kind for them.

There has been a history of condemnation threats made by state officials throughout the years. Neighbors believe it is designed to scare people into selling property. And, for some that was the result. They have read the reports in the local papers about how IDOT Director Susan Shea boasted about this being the first of many condemnation lawsuits that would result in the agency acquiring the rest of the 3,285 acres needed to build the airport. The neighbors have heard it all before, since the airport has been in the planning stages for the last forty years, with the latest efforts undertaken solely by Illinois officials, dating back to the summer of 1985.

The landowners that remain unwilling sellers are furious that Shea makes it sound to others who only casually know, read, or hear about the project, that obtaining all the land needed for an airport will be a slam-dunk. They know better, because they have no intention of giving up the property that many of them have fought twenty years to hold onto.

They resent hearing Shea talk about how the price for the Hudgins house will set a base price for future condemnations. They don’t believe that for a minute, since they know each case is separate from another. And, if they ever do have to go to court, they vow to fight.

Many of them are skeptical of Shea’s enthusiasm, such as her elation at the new airport layout plan that led her to say, “The Lord was looking out for me when he designed this land.”

Since the state revised the plans, even more land is needed. The site is now 5,225 acres in size, up from slightly from the 4,112 they said they needed before. So far, the state owns 1,940 acres, a paltry amount in comparison.

The resentment only deepens with the talk of condemnation, since there is officially no approved project for which to take their homes and property.
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