No matter what time of year, Mary Heineman usually can be found outdoors.
Whether it be hiking, biking, cross-country skiing or running in Kane County’s forest preserves, she enjoys nearly everything nature has to offer when she heads outside.
Heineman, of Sugar Grove, and her family have been part of restoration workdays in area forest preserves and spend recreational time as a family outdoors. Even a few of the family’s holiday traditions – hiking through a forest preserve to offset Thanksgiving dinner and sledding down Johnson’s Mound in Elburn at Christmas time – take advantage of local open space.
There are many types of land that qualify as open space, including forest preserves, parks, athletic fields, farmland, walking trails and water retention ponds. Some consider open space to be land that has never been built upon, while others might consider it a playground in the middle of a subdivision.
Heineman chooses to spend much of her leisure outdoor time at one of the county’s many forest preserves.
“The changing of the seasons are more appreciated in a forest preserve. The colors are more vibrant,” Heineman said. “It’s a great amenity in Kane County.”
Heineman is one of thousands of voters who have supported referendums to allow the county to purchase more forest preserve land. Even though it means paying more in taxes, she has supported those referendums because she believes open space increases property values.
“For me, I think it’s money well spent to continue to grow open spaces in Kane County,” she said.
The Kane County Forest Preserve District has run four successful referendums, totaling $260 million, since 1999. Even in the midst of 2011’s economy, voters chose to pay more in taxes so the county could acquire additional forest preserve land.
“It is the one referendum which has been repeatedly approved by the supermajority of Kane County,” said John Hoscheit, president of the Kane County Forest Preserve District Board.
The process of acquiring land ramped up in the late 1990s, when the county started feeling pressure from developers wanting to build in the county. Hoscheit said the public was vocal to county officials and “basically said, ‘We want you to preserve property.’ ”
A group called The Conservation Foundation helped form a citizen advisory committee that provided feedback about issues, such as buying more land to preserve.
Hoscheit said officials described the forest preserve referendums as the “ultimate tax cap” because preserving land, rather than developing it, saves taxpayers money.
For example, he said adding a dense subdivision would require new schools to be built, which means homeowners have to pay a permanent tax increase to fund it. Supporting a forest preserve referendum, he said, means supporting a temporary tax increase that lasts 15 to 20 years and ends up being cheaper long term.
“The incremental cost per household is 10 percent of what it would cost to pay for new schools, which is a permanent increase,” Hoscheit said. “We had support from people who saw no interest in open space, but voted for it to avoid major increases in the perpetual tax rate.”
He said the referendums were successful because they had support from a range of voters, from those passionate about conservation to conservative taxpayers.
The Little Woods Forest Preserve, a 162-acre preserve in Wayne, was part of the county’s 2011 land acquisition. Other recent investments include a 134-acre purchase in Batavia that’s adjacent to the souther edge of Dick Young Forest Preserve, south of Seavey Road, and a 136-acre addition to the Burlington Prairie Forest Preserve in Sycamore.
Some area townships also have been proactive in preserving open space.
In 2005, Campton Township voters – by a 3-1 margin – supported the purchase of $28 million worth of land, about 1,000 acres, to be used for preservation purposes. Township voters also passed a referendum in 2001 to purchase 1,000 acres.
Neal Anderson, who was Campton Township supervisor from 2001 to 2009, said he grew up in the area and watched the rapid population growth.
“For me, it was really hard to see homes come in and take away all the gorgeous farmland,” he said, noting that Kane County has some of the best soil in the world. “That’s why I got involved – to try to bring people together so we could all enjoy it and also try to protect some of what was here.”
Serving a purpose
Open space also serves as functional land, another reason planners want to preserve it. Open space helps with flood control, and a forest provides a wind buffer, absorbs carbon dioxide, produces oxygen and cools the air.
Many area municipalities also depend on groundwater to recharge aquifers for drinking water, which can’t happen if a large area is covered in cement.
“You have this natural thing that you just take for granted when in reality, you can’t take it for granted,” said Jon Duerr, who retired several years ago as director of the Kane County Forest Preserve.
Without natural habitats, certain animal species start to suffer. Mary Ochsenschlager, who has retired from the St. Charles Park District as assistant superintendent of natural areas and interpretive services, said ground prairie birds are among the most endangered in this area.
Pam Otto, manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, which is a facility of the St. Charles Park District, said the area used to be the native home of Blanding’s turtles, which never were in great abundance to begin with.
As Kane County has been built up, those turtles suffered because they started getting hit by vehicles as they moved from one wet patch to another. She said frogs also are a good indicator of environmental health because they live on land and water.
“If something happens to frogs, it means potential problems for humans and amphibians. If we lose that open space, what else are we going to lose that’s going to be able to inform us of what we’re doing environmentally?” Otto said.
Otto said excessive chemical use and road salts are becoming more prevalent and can cause health problems for frogs, and when frogs are affected by chemicals, it means there’s a chance that those chemicals could enter the water supply.
“We’re the ones that end up losing from that in the long run,” she said.
If the Kane County Citizen Advisory Committee provides positive feedback about acquiring forest preserve land, county officials may consider moving forward with another referendum. Hoscheit said the county may consider such a referendum as soon as 2016 because some of the 1999 bond issuances will be paid off by then.
Kane County voters have approved four referendums since 1999 so the forest preserve district could acquire more land
• 1999: 66.5 percent of voters approved a $70 million referendum
• 2005: 66 percent of voters approved a $75 million referendum
• 2007: 64 percent of voters approved an $85 million referendum
• 2011: 54 percent of voters approved a $30 million referendum
Source: Kane County Chronicle archives
The Kane County Chronicle is taking a closer look at the changing open space landscape in Kane County. This is part two of a three-part series.
Thursday • Part 1 – looked at the definition and history of open space in Kane County.
Today • Part 2 – looks at the importance of open space and the strong support of open space referendums.
Saturday • Part 3 – looks at the balance between preservation and development, and the importance of volunteers.