Bob Holdsworth found his dream home in Riverside Lawn in 1987, quite by accident. He and his wife, Mickey, lived on Chicago’s North Side and were looking to move to the suburbs as their kids reached school age. Someone suggested Brookfield, but they saw a home listed on Gladstone Avenue in Riverside Lawn and fell in love with it.
“I always wanted an old frame house with a big front porch to sit on and pick guitars and play banjos,” Bob said.
An avid camper who used to like getting away from the city to breathe fresh air, the rustic nature of Riverside Lawn, an unincorporated county area of about 40 homes within Riverside Township, wedged between the Des Plaines River and the village of Lyons, was appealing.
“When you saw this place, it felt like you were halfway there,” he said. “It’s kind of like living in the country.”
But Riverside Lawn is not a dreamy place to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle. In fact, if she could have her way, Riverside Lawn and the rest of the 62 square miles of unincorporated land within Cook County would be somebody else’s problem.
On April 30, Preckwinkle announced the findings of a task force, created in late 2011 to study the issue of the county’s unincorporated lands.
“It’s clear that in order to reduce our staggering budget deficit and maintain value for taxpayers, we need to move toward the goals outlined in this report and eliminate the unincorporated areas of Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.
Among the immediate steps Preckwinkle would like to take is to “encourage” municipalities to annex unincorporated areas with fewer than 100 residents and smaller than 60 acres. That sounds a lot like Riverside Lawn.
The only trouble with the county’s desire is that neither Riverside nor Lyons, the area’s two adjacent municipalities, sounds very interested in acquiring Riverside Lawn, which has the added problem of being completely within a flood plain.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks (which the county admits will be a significant hurdle) is that Riverside Lawn has little in the way of built infrastructure. There are no sewers and no water service. Residents all have septic systems and wells. The roads, last resurfaced in the late 1990s, are basic sheets of asphalt, with no curbs or gutters.
“For us, the infrastructure costs would not make it something I’d recommend to the [village] board,” said Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera. “There’d be a lot of infrastructure costs involved in incorporating Riverside Lawn into Riverside.”
Lyons Village President Christopher Getty also seemed skeptical of the county’s desire to have municipalities take over unincorporated areas.
“The financial impact on Lyons residents would be a great cost,” said Getty, referring to the infrastructure improvements that would be needed.
And then there are the people of Riverside Lawn themselves, said Getty.
“The biggest factor is if individuals who live there would like to be annexed,” he said. “My feeling is they would not.”
He’s probably right.
Since Riverside Lawn residents don’t pay municipal property taxes, their tax bills are lower than they’d be if they were part of a village.
“We take advantage of the good school districts, but our taxes have been pretty low,” said John Novak, who has lived in his home on Stanley Avenue since 1986. “The taxes on this house would be three times what they are now if it was in Riverside.”
Residents pay taxes for schools (the Riverside Lawn kids go to District 96 and Riverside-Brookfield High School), Cook County services and other agencies like the Des Plaines Valley Mosquito Abatement District – and there are mosquitos aplenty in Riverside Lawn.
The area is policed by the Cook County Sheriff’s Police and Cook County Forest Preserve District Police, although Riverside and Lyons police are often the first on the scene whenever there’s a call.
And homeowners in Riverside Lawn pay a special tax for fire protection from the village of Lyons.
While taxes are lower than they’d be in Riverside, taxes have gone up in recent years. Bob Holdsworth pays $8,000 in taxes for the five lots he owns, while Vladimir Havlik, a Stanley Avenue resident since 2006, said his taxes have gone from $3,300 to $5,800. Much of the increase is due to the school districts, both of which have passed referendums since 2004.
Residents of Riverside Lawn also know that if the area is annexed and infrastructure improvements are made, they would be the ones paying for them. It’s unlikely the rest of the municipality would want to foot the bill for the new projects; most likely they’d be funded by creating a Special Service Area.
“We’re always afraid we’d get socked with a special assessment,” said Bob Holdsworth. “If on top of being overtaxed, we get water and sewer, that’d kill a lot of people financially.
“I can’t see any way it wouldn’t cost me more money.”
And then there’s the fact that Riverside Lawn is, well, just different. Stroll through on a warm summer day and you’re surrounded by nature. It’s quiet and isolated.
“We’ve experienced a few floods, which can be a hassle, but 98 percent of the time, it’s a fantastic place to live in,” said Novak, whose father, Dr. Bob Novak, grew up in the same house. Novak’s grandparents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia, built the home in 1922.
“It’s very quiet and we really enjoy the privacy,” he added. “I’d hate to have that change.
“I guarantee that the great majority of residents would say, ‘We want to be left alone.'”