The U.S. Army Reserve isn’t allowing the Village of Forest Park or other prospective bidders to do any environmental studies on its recently vacated facility at 7402 Roosevelt Rd. – a nonstarter for commissioners Joe Byrnes, Maria Maxham and Ryan Nero.
All three told the Review they wouldn’t support the village’s attempt to acquire the property unless there’s an environmental study and more solid estimates of the costs involved. The military vacated the building in June, and now wants to dispose of the property through its Real Property Exchange (RPX) program, where a municipality or a private developer would get the site in exchange for improving another, active facility. In this case, the military wants water drainage improvements to its facility in north suburban Fort Sheridan.
On July 25, Mayor Rory Hoskins asked the village council to vote on whether to submit a proposal, which called for the reserve building to be converted into the new municipal center. Byrnes and Maxham balked, citing potential high costs of the drainage improvements and environmental remediation of the building in Forest Park. While Nero was unable to attend that meeting, he told the Review that he would have voted ‘no,’ for similar reasons.
While the council expected to be able to do an environmental study, on Aug. 8, they were informed that the Army Reserve wouldn’t allow it until the property is transferred, saying there was no need. While Byrnes said he hoped that the military could be persuaded to change its mind, Maxham and Nero said that, as things stood, they simply couldn’t support the acquisition.
While the application deadline was originally set at Aug. 1, the military has since extended it to Nov. 1. Hoskins told the Review that he was still interested in converting it into a municipal center, describing it as a spacious alternative to the current cramped, deteriorating village facilities. He argued the village could use revenue from the Hannah/Roosevelt Tax Increment Financing district to renovate the building piece by piece.
Hoskins previously declined to share how much Fort Sheridan improvements were expected to cost, except that the village believed that they were 20% of the Army estimates. Maxham said the village’s bid only included “a portion of the Fort Sheridan work” because “the village felt like [what the Army wanted] wasn’t a fair exchange in terms of what the Roosevelt [Road] property was worth.”
The July 25 meeting ended in a tie. Nero said that he planned to attend the meeting remotely while on vacation, but, after some back and forth with village officials, he wasn’t allowed to take part. He told the Review that he would have voted against the bid.
“I don’t believe the village council had enough information to move forward – that’s what I would have said had I been there,” Nero told the Review on Monday.
Village Clerk Vanessa Moritz said the issue was Section 1-4-4-H of the Forest Park municipal code which she said allows commissioners to attend meetings remotely only if they either have a health issue, are on a work trip or have an emergency.
Hoskins attended the Aug. 8 village council meeting remotely. He said he was attending a political conference in Champaign in his capacity as mayor. None of the commissioners, including Nero, objected. However in his commissioner’s report at the end of the meeting, Nero suggested changing that aspect of the municipal code, saying that it was outdated in a world where remote work and remote meetings were increasingly becoming a norm.
In an interview after the July 25 meeting, Hoskins said he had no idea where Nero was. Both Byrnes and Nero said that the mayor was included in the e-mail chain where they were discussing the latter’s attendance.
During the Aug. 8 village council meeting, Nero proposed amending that section of the municipal code, saying that it was outdated and should be more flexible.
On Aug. 4, both Byrnes and Maxham said that due diligence on the project was vital. Maxham said she would want to see an official appraisal of the property and a completed environmental study.
“I am pleased that the Army granted us an extension to bid on the project, because it allows us to slow down and take a more thorough look at our options,” Maxham said. “It is an exciting opportunity, and I am open to investigating the matter further, but there are many unknowns we need to figure out before proceeding with an application.”
She added that due diligence would be especially important if the village converts the building into new municipal offices.
Byrnes said he was reluctant to comment too much about what he’d like to see on the site until “I put the whole caboodle in my hands,” but he said that he would like to see at least some of the property generate tax revenue. As a government property, the building isn’t currently bringing in any property taxes .
“We have to find some way we can tax it, [levy] real estate taxes and business taxes, which we’re not getting right now,” Byrnes said. “If we put the village [facilities] on it, it will stay that way.”
Both commissioners said they wanted residents to have a chance to review any proposal the village might submit.
“I just think this whole proposal should have been put out to the public, so anyone can understand what we’re talking about,” Byrnes said.
“I want to stress that I welcome resident input on this project, because it could impact village finances and therefore taxpayer money for years,” Maxham said.
Nero said that, after the Aug. 8 announcement regarding an environmental study, he didn’t see the point of going any further.
“I don’t think that’s a responsible way to spend taxpayer money,” he said.
Maxham said the military saying environmental studies were “unnecessary” does not bode well.
“Prior to getting the news today, I would’ve been open to discussing [acquiring the property] further,” she said. “It feels like a red flag, and it concerns me.”