Word has been spreading around Riverside Lawn — the unincorporated area of Riverside Township between the Des Plaines River and 39th Street — that Cook County is looking to buy out the neighborhood.
Just what options remain for residents of the flood-prone area will be the subject of a public meeting on Wednesday, July 29 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Riverside Township Hall.
The meeting, called jointly by the Cook County Department of Planning, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the township reportedly will address flooding and potential solutions for Riverside Lawn.
While township and county officials say all options are on the table — from infrastructure improvements to property acquisition — the message residents are hearing loudest is that the county would prefer they volunteer to sell.
“They’ve already determined that the only option is buying us out,” said Diane Gryglak, who has lived in her brick bungalow on Stanley Avenue for the past 30 years. “I’d like to think there are other choices. If they can still do a berm, we’d be all for it.”
Gryglak was referring to a levee that the MWRD proposed building, one that would protect the 45 or so homes in Riverside Lawn from the repeated flooding their owners have endured, particularly since 2008.
In an e-mail Friday from Patrick Thomas, a public affairs staffer for the MWRD, he said that if agreement is reached to acquire homes voluntarily that Cook County and Riverside Township would work with the MWRD to manage “the process of purchasing the parcels, demolition and maintenance of the land until its return to open land.” He reiterated there is not currently a plan to purchase homes.
In 2012, the MWRD went so far as to approve preliminary engineering for the levee and reportedly sent letters to homeowners indicating the project was moving forward. But that same year, the levee proposal was shelved.
The following April, Riverside Lawn was inundated by flood waters when the Des Plaines reached its highest-ever crest, more than four feet above flood stage.
Rather than revisit spending millions of dollars to build a levee to protect the properties, the MWRD began exploring other options. In August 2014, the MWRD board voted to explore acquiring properties in Riverside Lawn.
Riverside Township Assessor Fran Sitkiewicz said she met with MWRD officials, who showed her flood maps of the area and the locations of homes where they had received repeated complaints about flooding.
“It’s pretty much almost everyone in Riverside Lawn who makes complaints to the MWRD,” Sitkiewicz said.
Meanwhile, the Cook County Department of Planning recently received almost $15 million in Community Development Block Grant funds earmarked for disaster recovery in the wake of the 2013 flooding in Cook County.
“The whole idea is to coordinate with the MWRD and the actual municipalities,” said Barbara Maloof, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Department of Planning.
In order to allocate that funding, the department needed to bring community members to the table to hear what they had to say.
“We’re bringing this hearing so we can hear from the actual property owners, what their experiences have been,” said Maloof.
Maloof wouldn’t comment on the potential for property acquisition except to say that “all options are on the table.”
Any buyouts would be voluntary, said Sitkiewicz. No one will be forced to leave. However, said Sitkiewicz, several homeowners in Riverside Lawn have expressed interest in the possibility of selling.
But nothing, said both Sitkiewicz and Maloof, is settled at this point.
“There are a range of options, but there’s nothing definite yet,” Maloof said. “We want to explain the options. It’s important that they come to this meeting.”
According to Maloof, the planning department’s deputy director for community development, Jane Hornstein, will be at the July 29 meeting.
As for Riverside Lawn residents, according to Gryglak, they plan on coming. Several of them met at Gryglak’s home on July 23 to consolidate information.
“It’s going to be heartbreaking if it really happens,” said Gryglak.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. on July 24, 2015 to reflect the comments of the MWRD spokesperson.