Riverside Lawn may be a very different place by this time next year.
During the past few weeks, real estate appraisers hired by the Cook County Land Bank have been out in the neighborhood evaluating properties in order to make offers to purchase most of the 40 or so homes, which are all located in unincorporated Riverside Township, south of the Des Plaines River.
Rob Rose, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank, met with Riverside Lawn residents on Nov. 4. He said there was “definite interest” in the county buying the residential properties, which are located in a flood plain and have suffered repeated flooding through the years, particularly since 2008.
“The appraisals are taking place now and the first round of reports are coming in,” said Rose, noting that at the high end, the county believes it may cost between $10 million and $12 million to purchase the properties. Any house acquired by the land bank would be demolished and the land sold to the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
“They’ll be converted to permanent green space,” he said.
According to Rose, the Cook County Land Bank chose to move ahead with the appraisals after more than 90 percent of the property owners in Riverside Lawn expressed interest in the buyout program.
Participation in the buyout program is strictly voluntary, he noted. And while 90 percent of the property owners expressed interest in getting an appraisal, not all of them are enthusiastic about leaving Riverside Lawn, a rustic environment where houses are set in a relatively untamed forested area with no public sewer or water systems.
Some families have owned property in the neighborhood for generations and several have owned their properties for decades.
But if enough owners begin taking the county’s offers, it could trigger a mass sell-off.
“I’d like to stay, but I don’t want to get stuck,” said Stanley Avenue resident Kathie Schaefer, who moved to Riverside Lawn with her family in February only to learn of the buyout proposal in July.
Schaefer said that while many of the older residents of Riverside Lawn are open to selling their properties and moving on, younger families want to stay put.
“People who are done raising families want to move on with the next phase of their lives. The rest of us like it back here and want to stay,” Schaefer said. “The only determining factor is the fear that when we’re ready to move on, what are we going to be left holding?”
Bob and Mickey Holdsworth have lived in their Gladstone Avenue home since 1987. They are among those who have been preparing to cut the cord.
Bob Holdsworth said he and his wife have been house hunting. His old frame home needs continual maintenance and has weathered multiple floods since 2008. He said he’s getting too old to fight the flooding and keep up with all that needs to be done.
“I love the neighborhood when it’s not flooded,” he said.
But he also doesn’t necessarily want a younger homebuyer to sign up for what he’s done for almost 30 years. Recently, Holdsworth posted a sign reading, “This area is a flood plain. Warning! This fence was under water in 2013, 2008, 1987,” on a fence outside the house to warn any prospective homebuyers visiting the neighborhood.
Even with the county’s proposed buyout in the news since the summer, some property owners have been trying to sell to private buyers. Holdsworth said he couldn’t do that in good conscience.
The land bank’s appraiser visited the Holdsworth house in mid-November.
“It depends a lot on the offer,” he said.
If enough homeowners sell, it will also increase the financial burden on those remaining. All of the property owners split the cost of fire protection from the village of Lyons. With fewer people participating, that cost likely will go up for those remaining.
And if enough houses come down, those who remain will be even more isolated, and the landscape will simply grow wilder around them.
“They’ll need to decide, do they want to live in the middle of a forest preserve?” said Rose, adding that the county’s plan is to make offers competitive enough to get property owners to take them. For decades, various plans have been floated to mitigate flooding in Riverside Lawn, including a relatively recent plan to construct a floodwall along the river.
But the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago determined that the cost of building such a structure wasn’t worth the benefit of protecting such a small number of homes.
Instead, the MWRD determined it’d be more cost effective to simply buy the properties, return them to their natural state and sell them to the forest preserve district.
This week the MWRD and Cook County Land Bank hope to ink an intergovernmental agreement that will finalize the funding for the property acquisition. Once that happens, said Rose, the land bank will work to get offers out to homeowners as soon as possible.
“We’d like to get offers out as soon as January,” said Rose.