Conservation-areas issue grows large in Homer Glen
When Mary Lou Benakovich looks out her back door, she sees tall weeds and plants where skunks, rats, coyotes and even a homeless man have taken shelter.
Nora Waliczek, Benakovich’s neighbor in Homer Glen’s Amberfield subdivision, at 147th Street and Parker Road, saw a poorly maintained berm that had more weeds than plants, which she blames for her three tick bites this summer. Landscapers finally installed buffalo grass there.
Farther south in the Stonebridge Woods subdivision on 159th Street, west of Parker Road, John Cahill paid more for a townhouse with a walk-out basement and overlooks one of several prairie ponds but said, “I didn’t know there would be a weed problem.” The pond used to have turtles and bullfrogs but not any more, making him wonder about the quality of the water, which is used to irrigate his lawn.
These Homer Glen residents said the natural landscape makes it difficult for them to enjoy their homes, which were built as part of the village’s first attempts at subdivisions designed with conservation in mind.
Homer Glen adopted its conservation design ordinance in 2006, with a goal of adding more than 1,000 acres of open space, protecting environmentally sensitive areas and developing more trails. At the time, it was considered one of the toughest such ordinances in the country, requiring all housing developments larger than 10 acres to set aside 20 percent to 50 percent of their land as permanent and public open space.
Similar ordinances, including one in Will County, encourage conservation designs on a voluntary basis and offer developers incentives for incorporating more open space and natural elements.
The intent of conservation design is to reduce impervious areas such as streets and sidewalks, protect natural resources and native habitats, incorporate lower-maintenance native plants and provide natural stormwater detention, such as bioswales.
Amberfield, so named for its native grasses that take on beautiful hues in the fall, was to set the example for others but instead seems to be an example of what not to do. The bigger issue at Amberfield is that the developer went bankrupt, and the natural areas have been allowed to become overgrown.
“We wait and wait for maintenance. The weeds are 6 feet high, and the village has an ordinance that weeds cannot be higher than 8 or 10 inches. One day I just got tired of it and cut it down,” Benakovich said.
She got slapped with an $875 fine for damaging a natural area, and a plastic orange fence was put around the swale to keep her out.
Mayor Jim Daley, a developer, minced no words about conservation design, saying he found it unsightly and that he prefers a traditional “manicured” look. The village ordinance, pushed by Trustee Margaret Sabo, was adopted before Daley was mayor and now he has to “live with the nightmare of it,” he said.
So do many residents of Amberfield, whose complaints largely have been ignored. They cannot even form a homeowners association and take over maintenance because most of the subdivision’s lots have not been sold.
“Sabo pushed for this, and it has turned out to be one of the biggest farces in Homer Glen,” Daley said. “Very few people are qualified to take care of bioswales.”
Sabo and Amberfield’s management company did not return numerous phone calls to discuss the issue of the natural areas.
“This was our first experiment with a subdivision like this, with swales and natural landscaping,” Trustee Marcia DeVivo said of Amberfield. “We could have done a better job.”
A certain amount of ecological expertise is needed to manage and monitor bioswales, which was not done at Amberfield, said Shawn Sinn, regional supervisor for the Conservation Land Stewardship, which installed the native plants in Amberfield’s berms and detention areas. The developer hired someone else to do the berms, he said.
“It’s definitely a little overgrown. It’s not perfect, but it’s not a train wreck either,” Sinn said. “The ecological benefits are still there.”
CLS was contracted to manage the natural areas for the first five years, a contract that was not renewed. Typically, these areas need to be maintained three times a year to get rid of invasive species and burned annually, Sinn said. He said another component missing from Amberfield is annual monitoring by an ecologist.
When it comes to native plants, their attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder, Sinn said. What many consider to be weeds actually are native plants.
“While aesthetics are important, that’s not the only factor,” he said. “These plants have ecological benefits. Each plant plays a role in the vegetative community. It’s hard to explain that to people.”
Tom Hahn, of Family Craft Builders, which developed Stonebridge Woods, said he toured other conservation-designed subdivisions in Homer Glen, but “we never had a clear idea of what it was ultimately supposed to be. It was told to us that the prairie plants would crowd out the weeds, but it doesn’t really work. The amount of maintenance it would take would be way more than just cutting grass.”
The lots by the seven prairie ponds in the subdivision have been hard to sell, Hahn said.
“Generally, the people who live by them don’t like them. When a potential buyer comes in, he wonders when we’re going to landscape it,” he said. “Most people don’t want it. If I had a choice, I would install sod, without a doubt.”
Hahn said the only benefit to having tall grasses surround the ponds is that it keeps geese off residents’ lawns because they fear predators are lurking in the weeds.
Cahill said he’s willing to compromise, suggesting that there be lawn and rocks along the pond behind his Stonebridge Woods townhouse while letting the other side, away from residences, be a natural area.
“Conservation design sounds nice, but you have to be realistic,” he said.