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Tri-Cities, school districts approach unused land differently

The Dunham Hunt House at 304 Cedar Ave. in St. Charles is owned by the city and is currently for sale because the city has no use for it.
The Dunham Hunt House at 304 Cedar Ave. in St. Charles is owned by the city and is currently for sale because the city has no use for it.

The 45 acres of farmland near Silver Glen and Randall roads are owned not by farmers but by St. Charles School District 303.

The district doesn’t use the land, nor does it use the 30.27 acres of other property it owns in various locations.

This situation is not unusual for governmental agencies. With the exception of the Batavia School District, the municipal governments and school systems in the Tri-Cities own property they do not use.

They obtained the land in various ways. For example, some lots were deeded to them, others were bought for a specific purpose that never panned out and, in the case of the former Kane County jail site and a site of a former water tower in Batavia, their original purpose is no longer needed.

While most governmental agencies have no plans to sell their surplus land, St. Charles and Geneva are viewing such lots as potential moneymakers.

Geneva recently sold three vacant lots for $175,000 – money that will help jump-start the city’s capital equipment replacement fund, assistant city administrator Stephanie Dawkins said. Now, she said, the city administrator is compiling a list of other excess property to determine what else Geneva could possibly sell.

“I think it’s a matter of making sure we’re allocating resources appropriately and not spending extra taxpayer dollars on maintenance costs that aren’t to the benefit of anyone,” Dawkins said.

St. Charles is trying to sell the Dunham Hunt House, a historical building deeded to the city in 1986 that, staff has said, needs about $300,000 in repairs and has a yearly maintenance bill of about $10,000 to $20,000.

The St. Charles Heritage Center had used the structure until last year, when it became a strain on the organization’s budget.

Selling other properties, including Langum Park and lots along Seventh and Ninth avenues used for snow piling in the winter, was suggested as a revenue-generating idea during the city’s financial Sustainability Initiative last year. Staff recommended implementing the idea, estimating the city could get $1.96 million by selling the properties and save another $18,000 in ongoing maintenance costs, according to a city document dated March 2011.

The city must get the properties appraised before any action is taken, Public Works Director Mark Koenen said.

“Then, and only then, would the council even consider how to proceed,” he said. If the decision is made to sell, he said, “the city would need to declare that for the time being … it’s unnecessary real estate.”

Not a financial burden

Representatives from each of the Tri-Cities said their surplus properties generally require some maintenance costs – usually for mowing and tree trimming – but officials from the Geneva and St. Charles school districts said they pay nothing to upkeep theirs.

Geneva’s 27 acres near Keslinger and Brundige roads that were once intended for a bus and maintenance facility is left to grow wild, a district official said.

About 12 acres of District 303’s land also don’t require upkeep.

The acres that do are maintained by either those who annually lease land for farming at a price of $8,600, or the St. Charles Park District, which uses the parcels for recreation purposes, said Brad Cauffman, assistant superintendent for business services.

“I don’t think a lot of taxpayers really know the cooperation we try to do,” Cauffman said of the agreement with the park district. “This is a good one. … They go ahead and mow it and maintain it and use it for a beautiful park area.”

An investment

The city of Batavia owns several downtown properties along Wilson Street, River Street and Washington Avenue that are labeled vacant, including the First Baptist Church site the city purchased a few years ago.

Mayor Jeff Schielke said the city has redevelopment hopes for that area, whether selling lots to commercial developers or turning the land into public amenities such as parks.

“I have no doubt in my mind that that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re just not holding a bunch of land for no reason.”

If taxpayers were ever to feel that way, Schielke said, they could elect new city leaders who would do something with the land – something citizens would have no control of if the parcels were owned privately.

City ownership also ensures the property will be used in support of Batavia’s long-term goals for downtown, such as better traffic flow, the mayor said. For example, he said, the city would accommodate IDOT’s plans to widen intersections whereas a private owner could hold up construction.

For St. Charles School District, selling its unneeded property doesn’t make sense, particularly for the Silver Glen parcel, Cauffman said. That land was purchased in anticipation of enrollment growth, he said.

“The best investment for the district is to hold onto the Silver Glen property,” Cauffman said. “Realistically, it will be a middle school site some day.”

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