A Brookfield resident who helps lead a nonprofit dedicated to preserving a native prairie in Westchester has joined local residents and stakeholders to push back against a developer’s plan to build a luxury townhome community on 15 acres of land adjacent to the roughly 80-acre Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve and the 43-acre Hickory Lane buffer lands — an area known worldwide for its biodiversity and soil composition.
Wyatt Widmer, associate director of the Save the Prairie Society, a nonprofit chartered in 1975 to protect the rare black soil prairie in Westchester, said he’s been conducting research on the proposed development’s potential environmental effects.
Widmer, 23, of Brookfield, said he can only speculate on the possible impact without seeing the developer’s blueprints, but added that construction of the development will almost certainly indirectly affect the prairie reserve, which is downwind from the proposed Springs at Wolf Prairie development, located a 2 Hickory Lane.
“Where they’re building, the last time it was tested, the sediment and the groundwater contained a variety of carcinogenic and neurologically degrading compounds,” Widmer said. “And methane — a greenhouse gas that is 26 times stronger than carbon dioxide at degrading the ozone.”
The prairie at Wolf Road has “over 370 species of native plants known to the site and more than 140 species of birds have been documented using the preserve for migratory stopovers, habitat needs and nesting,” according to the Salt Creek Greenway Association.
“Mammals, large and small, amphibians and untold numbers of insects, dragonflies and damselflies also inhabit the preserve,” the association explains on its website. “The seasonal migration of Monarch butterflies is a mid-September spectacle.”
During their committee of the whole meeting on March 9, Westchester trustees unanimously agreed to send the proposed luxury townhome development, which would be called the Springs at Wolf Prairie, to the village’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
The 15 acres are owned by luxury home developer Gallagher & Henry, which is based in Countryside. Wisconsin-based Continental Properties will manage the community, which proposes 180 luxury units, all of them rentals, at 2 Hickory Lane, according to information the developer provided to the Westchester Village Board last month.
Widmer is concerned that the large amount of excavation that would come with a development of this scale, could disturb and disperse contaminants.
“Usually, we have an eastbound wind, so all of that particulate matter, filled with carcinogens, neurological compounds and methane, gets blown this way,” Widmer said, during an interview conducted on the prairie earlier this month. “And if it doesn’t just flow right into our sediments, it blows into our waterways and into their neighborhoods.
“In addition to that, there’s a bedrock of dolomite six feet under the soil. In order to build anything there, there’s going to be some serious excavating,” he added. “We’re no longer talking about just digging the soil out, we’re talking about possibly the use of plastic, we’re talking about things that haven’t been dug up for 10,000 to 12,000 years getting suddenly released.”
The land near 31st Street and I-294 was once the site of a 275-acre landfill, which closed in 1982 after being in operation for 24 years, according to a 1989 Chicago Tribune article.
At the time, Sexton Sand & Gravel Corp., the proprietors of the landfill, were “trying to find the source of a carcinogenic chemical suspected to be leaking from there.”
Back in 1982, Hickory Lane was the site of an exclusive subdivision of roughly a dozen homes, whose private wells, once the source of their municipal water, had to be capped because the chemical, vinyl chloride, was suspected to have leaked into the water supplies.
Despite the wells being capped and Sexton building a $300,000 water pipeline that carried Lake Michigan water to the Westchester subdivision, the residents of Hickory Lane told the Tribune at the time that they still feared for their health.
Vinyl chloride, the paper reported, “is a versatile but toxic, man-made flammable liquid and gas widely used in the manufacture of plastics and paints. It can cause cancer, including liver and lung cancer.”
Sexton also developed and operated along with Allied Waste Transportation Inc. the landfill at Hillside Quarry in Hillside, which closed in 2008, according to the Tribune. That landfill has since been capped.
Six of the houses in the Hickory Lane subdivision are still standing, Widmer said. Most of them are abandoned. The Save the Prairie Society owns one of the homes, which it rents out to tenants.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources own the other portions of prairie and oak savanna surrounding the 15 acres proposed for development.
Widmer said that the potentially harmful compounds underneath the land near 2 Hickory Lane “are better off staying in the soil and not having to be cleaned up by anyone.”
He said if he can obtain the blueprints from Gallagher & Henry, he may be able to make a case for how the development might directly impact the prairie and surrounding oak savanna, prompting possible governmental intervention. The prairie is federally protected land.
During the board’s committee of the whole meeting on March 9, a representative with Continental Properties said that they had reduced the number of townhome units from 260 to 180 due to some board members’ concerns about how the site might impact the surrounding nature and forest preserves.
The developers also plan to construct an open space area on the site that could be dedicated to tree preservation. Widmer said that the idea to include the tree preservation was a concession the developers gave the Save the Prairie Society members and others concerned about the impact to the area’s biodiversity.
But Widmer said he suspects the tree area would only conserve invasive plant species that could imperil the health of the prairie. He said the prairie already gets overrun with invasive trees and other vegetation that risk turning the diverse local ecosystem into a monoculture.
He said he and other Save the Prairie Society members would prefer that the developers simply abstain from developing the site. Instead, he said, the Hickory Lane subdivision should be turned into an oak savanna again alongside, perhaps, a public park.
“There is no more efficient form of carbon sequestration, which is getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it back into compounds that we can use and so can the rest of life than grasslands and wetlands [than] the two environments we have here,” Widmer said.
The prairie, Widmer added, also works as one of the most effective forms of flood control, retaining water from flood events and preventing the surrounding properties from being overwhelmed.
Widmer said Save the Prairie members plan on bringing their concerns about the development directly to the Westchester village board, which will get a new mayor, Frank Perry, and several new trustees, this month.