Facing a hostile crowd of a couple hundred people, the Lyons Township High School District 204 Board of Education voted 6-0 on Jan. 23 to reject the two bids it received for an approximately 70-acre wooded parcel of undeveloped land it has owned just southwest of the corner of 79th Street and Willow Springs Road in Willow Springs for more than 60 years.
The board rejected a bid of $55 million from Bridge Industrial Inc., which met the school district’s minimum price, and a bid of $46.5 million from ProLogis Inc., a company that specializes in building distribution centers and warehouses.
Before the vote, school board President Kari Dillon said that the administration recommended rejecting the bids because they did not conform to the terms and conditions set forth in the request for bids.
After the vote neither Dillon nor Superintendent Brian Waterman would say how Bridge’s bid was not in conformity with the bidding terms and conditions.
The vote came six days after executives from Bridge met with officials from the village of Willow Springs. The executives reportedly told village officials their plan was to turn the land into an industrial park.
During a public comment at the LTHS school board meeting, Willow Springs Village Administrator Ryan Grace said village officials told the Bridge executives that an industrial park would not work for the area.
He also said he informed them that the land was zoned only for single-family housing, senior housing and retail. Grace said that industrial use of the land is prohibited by the Willow Springs zoning code. All of the Willow Springs village trustees attended the school board meeting.
“To be clear, the elected board for the village of Willow Springs has no intentions of modifying our village code to allow an industrial development that will not be in the best interest of the community,” Grace told the school board.
Neither Dillon nor Waterman answered when asked after the meeting if Bridge asked them to reject the bid.
Grace also said that Bridge executives told them that they had been working with LTHS for more than a year to purchase and secure development for the site.
Most of the 30 or so people who made public comments opposed the sale of the land and accused the school board of not looking out for residents who live south of Joliet Road.
Jim Distasio, who lives adjacent to the land that LTHS wants to sell, excoriated the board for disregarding the needs and wants of people who lived near the Willow Springs land.
“Their whole sales process was carefully engineered to turn land just steps away from an elementary school into an industrial park,” Distasio said. “This is about elected officials selling out the children of Pleasantdale and the Willow Springs community for a $55 million windfall.”
Pleasantdale Elementary School is just west of the land LTHS owns.
He accused LTHS of trying to quickly ram through the deal when few people were paying attention.
“This whole process, from your farce of soliciting feedback through website launched November 30th to moving to a sale just 20 days later, to refusing meetings with officials in Willow Springs and in Pleasantdale have been premised on a simple motive, you knew that this was a bad deal for our community so you moved quickly hoping no one would notice,” Distasio said.
Distasio said that the attempt to sell the property to a company that would turn the land into an industrial park shattered the community’s trust with the LTHS school officials. He and others complained about the pollution and congestion that an industrial park would create.
“All of you prioritized money over the health and well-being of your constituents south of Joliet Road,” Distasio said.
Distasio said that approximately 3,200 people had signed a petition opposing the sale of the land to Bridge.
A couple speakers, and a few others who submitted written public comment, urged the board to sell the land, saying it was their duty to do what is right for the entire district.
“It is the school board’s fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to make decisions on behalf of the district that will benefit all students at least expense to all taxpayers,” said Julie Workman of LaGrange.
LTHS bought the property in two chunks, one in 1955 and the other in 1962, with the idea that a new high school could be built there if it was ever needed. But it has never been needed and LTHS officials decided last year, apparently after inquiries from Bridge, to try to sell the land and use the proceeds to fund upgrades at the school’s two campuses in LaGrange and Western Springs.
Dillon made clear that if LTHS sells the land, it has no control over what a buyer would do with the land. Decisions on what could be built there would be up to the village of Willow Springs.
Grace presented a copy of the Willow Springs zoning code to the school board.
“Please listen to all community stakeholders and include the village of Willow Springs zoning ordinance in your bid packet so that potential bidders are aware of the approved uses and possibilities of the land,” Grace said.