Battle over rights to lakefront park continues
By Diana Kuyper Special to The News-Sun July 17, 2013 7:10PM
Updated: September 16, 2013 2:42AM
ANTIOCH — A restricted lakefront park could turn into a public attraction if a few residents can’t agree to share it with everyone else who lives in Heron Harbor, a multi-phase development on the southwest side of the village that includes a mix of 350 multi- and single-family homes.
Village officials Monday night, July 15, unanimously agreed to seek an appraisal of the park on Lake Marie, the first step in exercising eminent domain to establish a public park.
The feud between the 73 members in the Woodland Ridge Townhome Owners Association and all the other residents in the development has been festering for years, culminating in a lawsuit filed against the village a year ago by the association. “We just want a court order to protect our property rights,” said Rita Kopjo, president of the townhome association, explaining the reason for filing the lawsuit. “We have recorded deeds to the property. We spent the money to fix up the park and we pay the liability insurance. It’s disheartening that the village would want to take away our property rights.”
The problem isn’t that simple, village officials agree. Heron Harbor was developed in seven phases by at least that many developers starting in the mid-1980s, promising homebuyers lakefront access and amenities in the planned unit development (PUD).
Built as unit 5, Woodland Ridge townhome residents have refused to allow any other residents in the development to use the lakefront park, which includes open space fronting on Bowles Road and extends to wrap around the rear side of their townhomes.
“Ownership is a tricky thing. It’s not like they have title to a car,” said Village Attorney Robert Long, who explained the property was included as part of the village-approved amenities for everyone in the development, but when the townhomes were built the lakefront out lot was instead deeded to that particular unit 5 in Heron Harbor. “All the official documents show that out lot, as well as all the common open space and detention and retention areas as being owned and maintenance shared by all residents in Heron Harbor.”
Ray Spike was one of dozens of Heron Harbor residents who attended Monday’s village board meeting to ask for access to the park. “I only live a block away. I can see the park from my house and can’t use it. All the residents in Heron Harbor when they moved here were promised access to the lake.”
Other residents complained that they have been told by townhome residents to leave the park. Police Chief Craig Somerville confirmed that his officers have been called to the park to remove neighbors who wanted to enjoy the lakefront. “We have been asked to make arrests four times since last Thursday, but I have determined that we will not arrest Heron Harbor residents who try to access the park.”
“Yes, we have asked people to be removed, but we have never asked that anyone be arrested,” said Kopjo, who insists only the Woodland Ridge townhome residents have a right to use the park and that everyone else should stay off the property. “We have recorded deeds and a signed plat giving us that exclusive right.”
Long said using eminent domain to acquire the park means it will be open not just to other Heron Harbor residents, but to the general public. “The action tonight starts the process. There is time for folks to get together and agree to allow other Heron Harbor residents to use the park, but once the village owns the property it will be open to all.”
After the appraisal, the village can make a fair market value offer to the owners of the property, but ownership is still up in the air and part of the process will be to hire condemnation counsel to determine the rightful owner, said Long. If the offer is rejected by the rightful owner, the village can use its condemnation powers to obtain the property and then open it to everyone. “There is still plenty of time, however, for all of you to sit down and work it out without our involvement,” said Long.
“Try to find a way to resolve this,” Trustee Scott Pierce told the residents. “Both sides have a valid issue, but you need to find a solution otherwise the village will solve it for you by making this property into a public park.”
“It’s a shame we have to be involved in this,” said Trustee George Sakas. “If unit 5 (Woodland Ridge) residents were good neighbors, we would not have this problem.”