The Cook County Land Bank is exploring a plan to buy flood-prone properties in unincorporated Riverside Lawn for “fair market value” and turn them into forest preserve land, Executive Director Rob Rose said July 29 at the Riverside Township Hall.

“If we are able to get a critical mass of voluntary buyouts, we will be able to gift that land to the Cook County Forest Preserve for green space in perpetuity,” Rose told about 120 residents who attended the special public meeting.

Riverside Lawn is a patch of 71 rural parcels nestled in an elbow of the Des Plaines River north of 39th Street. About 30 homes are located in the area bounded by Stanley Avenue, Bismarck Street and Washington Avenue.

After “100-year” flooding in the past several years, many of the homes are foreclosed, abandoned or for sale, Rose said.

Rose said the plan would work with buy-in from contiguous property owners, “not checker-boarded throughout the area.”

He suggested “good old-fashioned persuasion, peer pressure and conversation,” among neighbors. “There has to be a commitment to this, and it has to be a significant number of you.”

Federal money is available for buyouts in chronically flooded areas if “there is no engineering solution available,” Rose said.

The land bank would spend an estimated $9.2 million to buy properties. Residents will get a letter in the mail asking for interest, Rose said.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Engineer Richard Fisher told the group two engineering studies had shown a levee system for the area was not financially feasible.

Jane Hornstein, deputy director of the Cook County Department of Planning and Development, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked the county to develop a regional resilience plan to address flooding.

Cook County has the highest number of FEMA claims in the country, Hornstein said.

“I got a call from FEMA and they told me, ‘We can’t do it any more, it’s draining the federal budget. You need to fix it,'” she said.

Properties would be appraised “with pre-2013 comparables,” Rose said, to rule out any loss of value caused by two years of flooding. The area sustained significant flooding in April 2013 following floods in 2008, 2010 and 2011.

Rose also said the land bank would work with banks to accept present market value for properties that might be financially “under water.”

But the offer is take-it-or-leave-it.

“If you choose not to accept the offer, you can’t come back later,” Rose said.

The program still needs to gain approval from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board and the Cook County Board, so it won’t start up for three or four months, if it happens at all, Rose said.

If the program proceeds, the county will likely put a hold on building permits because it makes no sense to build or improve properties that were going to be bought out, Rose said.

Audience members were split about whether they might stay or go.

“My whole life is built around ‘I’m ready to go,'” said one woman.

“I’m staying, because where would I get 1.5 acres of land at this price this close to Chicago?” another audience member said.

Riverside resident Kamille Kiecker said after the meeting she’s still committed to her dream of building a raised container-home on stilts in four lots she purchased in Riverside Lawn last August. “I’m not leaving. I’ve already got engineers and architects working on the project.”

“I feel like I didn’t get creative solutions at this meeting,” Kiecker said. “People get stuck in the old way of thinking, and they can’t come up with creative solutions.”

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