Ruling expected March 8 on airport land condemnation challenge
By Janet Lundquist firstname.lastname@example.org February 27, 2013 1:04PM
Susan Shea, Director, Division of Areonautics for IDOT, center, walks outside the Will County Court Annex in Joliet, IL on Tuesday February 26, 2013. There was a hearing in an eminent domain case filed by IDOT against some land owners, as an attempt by the state to acquire land for the third airport. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 1, 2013 11:49AM
State officials should not be able to take land lying in the footprint of a future airport near Peotone because the project has not been approved for construction, a lawyer for one property owner said Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Barbour family, who own land in the planned airport’s footprint, and the Illinois Department of Transportation made their final arguments Wednesday morning in Will County Circuit Court on the Barbours’ motion to dismiss a condemnation lawsuit filed by IDOT.
Judge Susan O’Leary said she would issue a written order ruling on the motion on March 8.
The Barbour family owns three parcels that IDOT offered to purchase for $3.9 million.
But the family has refused the offer and hopes O’Leary will dismiss the condemnation cases subsequently filed by the state, which involve 300 acres near Will Center Road and Eagle Lake Road in Will Township.
They have argued that the state’s attempt to take their land through eminent domain is premature, as the Federal Aviation Administration has not issued its final approval for the project.
“The South Suburban Airport doesn’t exist because they don’t have a permit” for construction, said William Ryan, an attorney representing the Barbours. “Today, there is no airport. There is no public purpose (for land acquisition). Without FAA approval, there is no airport.”
Ryan also pointed out that the state still has not completed all of the reports necessary for the next stage of FAA approval and that the Legislature has reduced the amount of money appropriated for land acquisition.
Jim Mueller, an attorney for IDOT, said there is no question that the airport will be built and that the state does not need final federal approval to begin land acquisition.
The state needs to acquire land to preserve the site for the airport, which also will prevent buildings such as schools being built next to the airport footprint, he said. Mueller also pointed out that the state has spent eight years working with property owners in the area, trying to identify anyone willing to sell their land.
It has found all the willing sellers and since has moved to condemnation lawsuits, Mueller said.
Susan Shea, IDOT’s director of aeronautics, spent much of the morning Tuesday testifying about the department’s planning procedures.
The state has acquired close to 45 percent of the land covering the airport’s inaugural footprint and spent almost $38 million to buy 2,667 acres from willing sellers for the project. IDOT officials say they need 5,800 acres.
“It’s important that we go to condemnation because we know it’s not a matter of if, it’s when” the airport is built, Shea said on the witness stand. “It’s the right time.”
Under cross-examination, Shea admitted that the final airport layout plan has not been approved. If built, the airport would be 35 miles south of Chicago’s Loop and surrounded by Beecher, Crete, Monee, Peotone and University Park.
Shea said the state assumes it will own and operate the airport but also admitted under cross-examination that there are many owner/operator scenarios — including Will County ownership or operation — that could become reality.
Tuesday afternoon, Jim Ofcarcik, manager of fiscal analysis for IDOT’s budget office, testified that the state has appropriated funding for land acquisition for the South Suburban Airport every year for the last 13 years.
As of Monday, the state had about $26 million appropriated for land acquisition, he said. Under cross-examination, Ofcarcik said the state in 2011 reduced its appropriation for the airport land acquisition by about $70 million. The department has asked for the funds to be reappropriated, but that has not happened, he said.
Several members of STAND — Shut This Airport Nightmare Down — attended the hearing. Judy Ogalla, who also is a Will County Board member, said the Barbours’ case was the first of several condemnation lawsuits filed by the state to get to this legal stage.
The need for a third Chicago-area airport has been debated for years. And in recent years, Will County officials have vied for control of the airport with former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned from office in November. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal charges of misusing campaign funds.
The state has not approved any plan regarding airport governance.