The Forest Preserve is about to embark on a five-year capital plan that will extend and connect trails, improve preserves and facilities, and allow for additional land acquisition.
The plan will be funded by a $25 million bond issue that was approved November 14 by the Forest Preserve District’s Board of Commissioners.
“In the past 20 years we’ve made a significant investment in the forest preserves by providing more public access and increased restoration efforts,” said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve’s chief operating officer. "Preserving and restoring our natural landscapes not only provides habitat for all forms of wildlife, but helps to improve the water quality of our streams, lakes and rivers; mitigate flood waters; and improve air quality."
The $25 million capital plan allows the Forest Preserve to maintain the quality of facilities and trails that visitors have come to expect and to protect them for future generations, he added.
"Providing access to nature is a critical part of our mission as an organization," Schultz said. "It enhances the quality of life for Will County residents."
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Even with the new bond issue, the District’s tax rate will decrease because the Forest Preserve recently retired $45.2 million in previously issued general obligation capital appreciation bonds from 1999, said John Gerl, the Forest Preserve’s chief financial officer. For instance, the owner of a $200,000 home will pay approximately $88 in property taxes to the District in 2020 as compared to $91 in 2019. In general, the Forest Preserve makes up around 2 percent of the average property tax bill in Will County.
"This is good timing for the bond issue because municipal bond rates are currently at historic lows and the District has a very favorable AA+ credit rating," Gerl added.
In addition to approving the bond issue, the Board also approved a balanced $68 million budget and multiple property tax levies that will fund the budget.
Of the $25 million bond issue, $13 million will be used for preserve, facility and trail improvements and $12 million for land preservation during the five-year capital plan.
Working with its Citizens Advisory Committee, the Forest Preserve has identified 1,943 acres of high priority parcels throughout the county. The acquisitions will provide land needed for natural area buffers, trail extensions and connections, future preserve access areas and natural habitat restoration projects. The parcels also will provide flood storage, water infiltration to replenish underground aquifers and storage for atmospheric carbon.
Bond funding will be used to expand holdings at: Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve, Riverview Farmstead Preserve, Thorn Creek Headwaters Preserve, Forked Creek Preserve, Hadley Valley Preserve, Moeller Woods Preserve, Vincennes Trail, Black Walnut Creek Preserve, Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, Plum Valley Ravines, Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve, Theodore Marsh, Donohue Grove Preserve, Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, Old Plank Road Trail and Romeoville Prairie Nature Preserve.
The list of capital improvement projects includes:
- Plum Creek Greenway Trail: Phase III will connect Phase II in Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve with Phase II at Plum Valley Preserve.
- Lake Chaminwood Preserve: Phase II will add additional parking and connect preserve trails to the I&M Canal State Trail.
- Four Rivers Environmental Education Center: Improvements will include the construction of exhibit space and exhibits, additional water access, expanded programming, camping opportunities and trail improvements.
- Rock Run Greenway Trail: The path's elevation will be raised in areas that experience flooding.
- Joliet Prison East: Phase I of this project involves providing access to the 135-acre open space area northeast of the historic prison, contingent upon local ownership of the property.
- Trail Connection, Upgrades and Enhancements: This work includes replacement or renovation of 10 trail and roadway bridges as well as trail resurfacing throughout the District. The funds also will be used to extend and connect existing trails, including the Normantown Trail in Plainfield, Rock Run Greenway Trail in Joliet and the DuPage River Trail in Shorewood.
- Habitat Restoration/Agricultural Land Conversion: Funding will convert land in agricultural production into new native landscapes at a rate of 50 acres per year.
Decades of growth
Previous capital programs that were funded by bond issues have paid for many of the District's most popular public amenities, including dog parks, new or expanded trails, fishing lakes, boat launches, picnic shelters and building renovations.
In 1989, the Board approved issuing $50 million in bonds for land acquisition and development. Referendums approved by voters in 1999 and 2005 provided $165 million in revenue and pushed land acquisition and preserve development to a new level.
In many cases, the bond money was used as seed money to acquire state and federal grants for projects located in preserves throughout Will County. However, land acquisition funds were depleted in 2015 and projects paid for with the previous capital improvement program funding were completed by 2017.
In the 93 years since its creation, the Forest Preserve District has grown from 143 acres in 1930 to almost 22,000 acres of leased, owned or managed land today. All of this preservation came at a time when the county’s population mushroomed from 110,732 in 1920 to almost 700,000 residents.
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