In the old days, Mark Lichtenfeld played in the woods along the bumpy two-lane road down the street from his parents’ home in Highland Park. “I remember we used to build forts in there,” says Lichtenfeld, now a 28-year-old lawyer. “I was not an environmentalist then–I was a kid. And I just loved the open space.”

That space–known as the Highland Park prairie–may soon be lost forever. A developer named David Hoffman has a contract to buy the 132-acre plot of woods and fields on Ridge Road near Half Day Road; he plans to bulldoze most of the fields and build something called Hybernia: 119 single-family homes (with asking prices ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million each) surrounding a 23-acre public nature preserve.

The result is a fierce battle before the Lake County Forest Preserve District Board, one that pits Hoffman, president of Red Seal Development Corporation, against local preservationists, who warn that unless local government draws the line, the land north to Wisconsin will be lined with strip malls, houses, and parking lots.

“We want the Lake County forest preserve to buy the land and keep it from being developed,” says David Sanders, regional coordinator for the Open Lands Project, a not-for-profit group. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘We’ve got too many trees.’ But there is widespread feeling that we are in danger of being overdeveloped.”

As a result of lobbying by Lichtenfeld’s group–the Highland Park Conservation Society–some of Lake County’s most fervent prodevelopment politicians have momentarily taken the preservationist line. But Hoffman has not given up. He’s hired the Loop-based law firm of Rudnick & Wolfe, who have assigned Hal Francke–one of their brightest young stars–to the case. Hoffman has also hired a battery of experts, who maintain that Hybernia will neither increase traffic nor destroy prairie. The forest-preserve board is scheduled to vote at its August 18 meeting on whether to buy the land.

“As a resident of Highland Park, I think it’s in the best interests of the county to let Hoffman build his development,” says Francke. “The alternative is for the county to spend tax dollars buying and preserving the land. But Hoffman is willing to preserve the endangered wildlife species and wetlands at his expense. The bottom line is that the preservationists don’t want any more development. They’ve got a drawbridge mentality: ‘We’re here, now no one else can get in.’ Well, if the original settlers of Highland Park had that attitude, a lot of the developments these preservationists now live in would never have been built.”

Francke has a point. Much of Highland Park consists of subdivisions built west of the Edens Expressway in an area that was mostly undeveloped cornfields just two decades ago. But in the 60s a variety of hotshot developers–the David Hoffmans of their day–saw an opportunity and took it. They bought the cornfields, cleared them, and laid the groundwork for dozens and dozens of split-level tract homes that were marketed to young white middle-class families on the run from Chicago.

From this perspective, developers are no more greedy than their buyers. After all, no one put a gun to the heads of Highland Park’s current residents and made them desert Chicago. They left of their own volition, searching for the biggest homes and most exclusive communities that their money could buy. If a few trees and some open space were sacrificed along the way, so be it.

“I’ve heard that argument many times, and it has some truth to it,” says Lichtenfeld. “If you want to go all the way back, you would say that the Chicago prairie should not have been changed since the time of the Indians.

“Being realistic, we have to admit we have reached our saturation point. We must realize that we do not have an infinite amount of land. We’re overbuilding. And yet these developers view land as an endless frontier waiting to be developed.”

The battle over the Highland Park prairie started late last year, after Lichtenfeld, Richard Ettlinger, Michael Martinez, and other members of the Highland Park Conservation Society decided to ask that the forest-preserve board buy the land.

The board has the power of eminent domain, which means that in the name of the public good–conservation, for example–it can buy any parcel of land in Lake County. (If the property owner feels the board’s offer is too low, he can sue.) It’s a power the board exercises with restraint, as there is currently much hostility in Lake County to governmental entities telling property owners what they must do with their land.

“The forest preserve won’t buy a piece of land unless the local municipality consents to the purchase,” says Lichtenfeld. “That’s why we went before the Highland Park city council. We told them we were going to ask that the county buy the property, and we asked that they not object. That meeting was in December 1988. It was packed–everyone was on our side. And then out of nowhere, Hal Francke stood up.”

Francke told the council that his client, Hoffman, had an option to purchase the land from its current owner, the Polk family estate.

“We were surprised by what Francke said,” says Lichtenfeld. “That was the first we had heard of Hoffman’s plans.”

Francke tells a slightly different version. “They [the Highland Park Conservation Society] must have heard this development was happening; they have their sources,” he says. “They had to know something was happening. Why else did they all of a sudden decide to have the county buy it?”

Whatever the case, the city council played peacemaker, asking that the two sides try to settle their differences at a meeting. That meeting took place six months later, in the banquet room–rented by Hoffman–of a restaurant in Glenview. The evening’s entertainment featured a chorus of traffic, engineering, and environmental experts–hired by Hoffman–who paraded past the six preservationists and sang Hybernia’s praises.

“That was a good-faith effort on [Hoffman’s] part to keep the residents informed,” says Francke.

“The meeting was on April 11–just six days before Hoffman’s formal presentation to the city council–so you can’t say they were seeking our recommendations,” Lichtenfeld counters. “They only allowed us to bring in six people [to the conciliatory meeting]. On the other hand, [Hoffman] must have had about 30 people there.”

Hoffman’s proposal drew nearly 200 opponents to the city-council meeting; and the Highland Park aldermen–not normally known as preservationists–sided with the masses. They decided that they would not object if the forest preserve bought the prairie.

And so on June 16 the matter came before the forest-preserve board–a 24-member body whose meetings rival those of the Chicago City Council for confusion and entertainment.

“The forest preserve is comprised of the same members as the Lake County board,” says Sanders. “The county is divided into six districts, each of which has four representatives on the board.”

It’s a diverse bunch, too–including representatives from the black sections of Zion and Waukegan, as well as blue bloods from Lake Forest and farmers from towns like Libertyville. With the exception of a handful of Democrats, most are Reagan Republicans. The meeting on the Highland Park prairie began with a proposal by Donald Strenger–who represents the district that includes Highland Park–that a decision on purchasing the land be postponed until after it’s been appraised.

This proposal surprised many of the preservationists; generally, land-acquisition proposals are voted straight up or down, without any attempt at appraisal.

“Strenger was stalling,” says one longtime observer of the forest preserve board. “His proposal would allow the board to bring in some appraiser who would quote a superhigh appraisal, and then all the fence sitters would say ‘Well, I really wanted to buy the land, but I just can’t vote to spend so much money.'”

If that was the motive, the board’s preservationists were not fooled. Board member F.T. “Mike” Graham–a fervent preservationist–proposed to amend Strenger’s proposal so that it would require Highland Park to pay half of the prairie-acquisition costs. Because board members would have to vote on this amendment, Graham was forcing the representatives from the Highland Park area to take a stand–one way or another–on the land purchase.

Graham’s proposal threw the meeting into chaos. Some board representatives complained that Highland Park–despite its wealth–was too poor to help buy the land. Others countered that Highland Park’s residents should put their money where their mouths are. Eventually Graham withdrew his proposal, apparently satisfied that he’d provoked the Highland Parkers enough.

“You have [elected] environmental lightweights to this board,” Graham told the 50 or so Highland Park residents who packed the hearing room. “And in the past we have had many acquisition plans voted down by [board] members [from your] district. I agree that this land should be saved; hopefully these enthusiastic [residents] will not go home and say, ‘We saved our ox,’ and forget about the rest of the county.”

With that, discussion resumed on Strenger’s proposal. New amendments were suggested and withdrawn or defeated. So fierce was the parliamentary wrangling, even some board members were baffled.

“Point of order,” one exasperated board member bellowed.

“What’s the point of order?” another responded.

“We’re debating this amendment and no one has seconded it.”

“You seconded it.”

“I did? I didn’t know I had been recognized.”

After two hours of debate, Strenger’s proposal passed by a vote of 15 to 5, which sent the Highland Park residents home cheering. Many of them appeared to believe that Hoffman, facing a time-consuming, costly deferral, might walk away from the project. But Francke vows that that will not happen.

“It’s not a victory for one side or another,” says Francke. “My client is not giving up. He’s spent a ton of dough already; and [Highland Park] has basically assured us that, but for the forest-preserve acquisition, we’re going straight ahead.”

No one can predict how the board will vote in August, after the appraisal has been made.

“We need 13 votes, and it will be tough,” says Sanders. “This is an expensive piece of land, and the board already is committed to buying other property in Lake County. I hope they’re not bringing in an appraiser as an excuse to avoid doing what is right.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce POwell.