Dominican easement squabble may be over ... or not

? University says it owns contested section of land; Forest Preserve says River Forest owns it; others say they're both wrong.

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A new twist related to the ownership of land adjacent to Dominican University has apparently done little to reduce the controversy over a proposed parking lot driveway through the property. For the past two years Dominican University has been working with the Village of River Forest to obtain an easement through a three-plus acre strip of forested land allegedly owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve. That easement would allow a new parking lot on the Dominican campus to connect directly to Thatcher Avenue.

Last Tuesday, though, the university announced that, during the course of property title research by their attorney, Mike Igoe, it was discovered that the university actually already owned 30 feet of land west of their current assumed property line. That fact, they say, was apparently obscured until now by changes made in 1935, when Thatcher was relocated west to its current location. In light of that development, the university plans to formally ask the Village of River Forest to withdraw its request on Dominican's behalf for an easement from the Cook County Forest Preserve.

However, while the Cook County Forest Preserve agrees that they don't own the land, they also say they don't believe the university holds title to it, but rather the Village of River Forest.

"We believe the land belongs to River Forest," said Forest Preserve spokesperson Steve Mayberry Friday.

However, Vic Guarino, a longtime critic of Dominican's efforts to make use of the parcel in any manner, stated flatly Friday that he doesn't believe either Dominican or the village have title to the property, saying "We  believe that the land belongs to the Forest Preserve."

"They're prejudging this," Guarino added. "There hasn't been a thorough enough study of this." Characterizing the current turn of events as "very complicated," Guarino insisted that the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which administers the Forest Preserve district, has never told the university that it owns the property.

"[Board president John] Stroger said [last] Wednesday that he never told Dominican University that they owned that land," said Guarino. "We're calling for an independent legal counsel to review this."

Benjamin Cox of the Friends of the Forest Preserve agrees, saying that, at the very least, he thinks Dominican is jumping to conclusions.

"I think Dominican is really jumping out ahead on this issue, when this really hasn't been resolved." To that end, Cox said his group has contacted the Chicago Environmental Law Clinic at the Kent Law School to conduct further research on the ownership issue.

"It's just not clear yet," said Cox, adding that any definitive statement on actual legal ownership will likely take "around two months."

Others, though, appear to believe that closure is at hand.

River Forest Village Administrator Charles Biondo said Tuesday that the village had met with Igoe, who had determined the university's claim to the land by researching old plat maps dating back to the beginning of the Forest Preserve District in 1913. Noting that he's "not a lawyer," Biondo said, "I think it's just a matter of our going through a vacation process [of the easement]," to give control of the property back to Dominican.

The village board, said Biondo, will be acting on that matter shortly as part of the required Planned Development Review process Dominican must go through prior to any construction project.

"The reality is, it's not legally ours," said Peter Silvestri of the Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. "I saw the paperwork, and it looks like a decision was made incorrectly sometime in the past. Now we have to move forward."

Silvestri, whose 9th District includes the disputed land, added that he hoped moving forward meant, except for the new driveway, the remaining disputed land would remain in its natural condition.

"One way or another, it should remain open space."

Dominican officials, who hope to build a temporary entrance and exit off of Thatcher to allow access for construction equipment this fall, said they'd like to resolve the matter quickly, and move on with their construction plans. Besides constructing the driveway, they intend to move the existing parking lot further west, and construct a multi-level parking garage adjacent to the university. Among the benefits of the new access off of Thatcher, university officias said, is a reduction in traffic on the residential side streets currently serving as entrances and exits to the current parking lot. But all of their plans hinge on the driveway.

While River Forest President Frank Paris said he didn't want to express an opinion on an issue that hadn't been formally brought to the village for consideration, he did say that, speaking for himself, he is "always likely to be in favor of something that will reduce traffic on village streets."

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