Monday, November 23, 2009

Settlement gives O'Hare freedom to expand

There may be no wall to tear down; no gate to unlock, but the out-of-court settlement between  Chicago and Bensenville is huge for the Chicago area.

The City of Chicago is now free to expand O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.

Suburban leaders have put roadblocks in the path of O'Hare improvements, possibly since O'Hare opened in the early 1960's. But now, they have decided to step aside.

The Village of Bensenville and its new Village President Frank Soto, who defeated longtime O'Hare expansion foe John Geils last April, settled with Chicago for $16 million.

On Monday, Nov. 16, the City agreed to pay the village of Bensenville in exchange for dropping long-standing legal challenges against O'Hare. The city is now free to raze an estimated 500 homes in the path of new runways.

Peotone held to a different standard

When land was purchased for new runways, the City of Chicago honored a court order that prohibited buying property and demolishing homes until expansion plans were approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That has not been the case in nearby Peotone. In 2001, ex-Gov. George Ryan made a deal with a campaign contributor, who sold the state the first piece of land for what he and his IDOT cronies called a "protective land buy." The parcels were the undeveloped lots in an upscale housing development outside the airport boundaries. When Ryan left office, the parcels were released from the project.

The sale of that first piece gave Ryan his intended result. It was enough to scare some property owners into selling their land to the state. They employed additional techniques, such as threats of condemnation to coerce additional sales of family homes and farms. IDOT wasted no time in calling out the bulldozers to demolish what appeared to be perfectly livable homes and barns, speculating that one day they would build the South Suburban Airport.

But to this day, the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved the Peotone Airport. As far as that agency is concerned, the Peotone airport is not officially a project. That is likely why the state has not used its powers of condemnation. To do so would require proof that an airport project is imminent.

Resolutions signed by several towns and townships adjacent to the airport project as well as organizations against further land acquisition until a project is approved,  have been largely ignored by county and  legislative leaders, IDOT officials, and several governors.

All the folks of eastern Will County want are the same protections that Chicago afforded suburban O'Hare residents in the path of O'Hare expansion.

 O'Hare foes tied to Peotone

The Peotone project has been tied with O'Hare foes since funds were first awarded in the amount of $500,000 to the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association for airport capacity studies in '85.

Powerful legislators endorsed the Peotone plan as a means of cutting off O'Hare. Bensenville's former president, Geils had been one of the voices that have remained steadfast since those early days of the push for Peotone. He was involved in the once-powerful Suburban O'Hare Commission that was made up of several towns in the northwest suburbs, who saw a new airport as the remedy to their noise and pollution problems.

Over the years, the towns around O'Hare realized that continual lawsuits against Chicago and its airport were costly and not in their best interests. O'Hare was an economic engine that affected far more than Chicago. It was a benefit to their towns as well. As they saw that O'Hare was an asset they eventually dropped out of the Suburban O'Hare Commission. Soon, the only ones left were Bensenville and Elk Grove Village.

Immediately following last April's election when Geils was ousted by voters, Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson dropped plans to continue the fight against O'Hare.