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Green Space Group Ready to Move on After Property Fight

Community activist Phil Labak is happy Woodridge will keep the open space in Town Centre. His group, Keep Green Space Green, fought to keep District 99 from selling the land.

Now that the six-year battle over ownership of 44 acres in Town Centre has ended, Woodridge residents are ready to move on and enjoy the open space. 

"It's over with now and it's wonderful," Phil Labak said. "It will be an open space for generations to come. To me, that's the heart of Woodridge."

Labak has had a key interest in the dispute over the property at the corner of Woodridge and Center drives. He's a member and spokesman for Keep Green Space Green, a grassroots group of concerned citizens who got together in 2005 when grappling over the land began.

"This is land that we love. We were being good neighbors, making it a great place to live," Labak said.

Community High School District 99 bought the site more than 30 years ago for a third high school. After a referendum to build a new school failed to pass three times, the school board took steps to sell the land. That's when Keep Green Space Green started working with the village to try to persuade District 99 to sell the land back to Woodridge.

Woodridge offered $10 million for the property, but District 99 wanted $20 million. Woodridge countered with an eminent domain action, and a 2007 court ruling opened the way for the village to acquire the land for $14.2 million, including $550,000 of interest accrued on the property.

District 99 appealed. In July, the Appellate Court upheld the lower court. The District 99 school board voted not to appeal further.

Morna Stewart is a longtime Woodridge resident who watched the legal wrangling,
hoping for this outcome.

"I didn't want to see the land go away and become another school. I wanted it to stay green," Stewart said. "If they put something in there, it would change the whole flavor of the area."

The land dispute cost the village $800,000 in legal fees. Those fees are split between the Village of Woodridge and the Woodridge Park District, said Jack Knight, management analyst and deputy village clerk for the Village of Woodridge.

Now that the dispute it over, Woodridge is looking to the future.

"The village is glad we can put this behind us and excited to move forward in a way that best serves our residents," Knight said.

District 99 is looking to the future, too. The district has said it will use the money to finance capital projects.

"They (the school board) can definitely do a lot of good things with $14 million," Labak said.

Woodridge officials say there are no plans to make changes to the land. The property will remain an open space where residents can enjoy nature as well as the annual Woodridge Jubilee and various sporting events.

Kathy Hunter is one of those residents. She grew up in Woodridge and moved into
Chicago after college. She recently moved back to raise her two young children with
her husband.

"We're happy at the prospect that Woodridge has kept the land open," Hunter said. "We use the park a lot and we like the wooded area. There's so much wildlife to see."

The property will play a key role in the planning for the future of the Town Centre. But the community will get a say in what happens — something Labak and Keep Green Space Green are sure to monitor. 

Labak says the group doesn't have any plans to become involved in other property issues in Woodridge. He says the village has done a good job in working with the community, and he expects that to continue.

"There's a collective process in the master plans," Labak said. "The village has built a relationship with folks. We're as pleased as we can be."

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