JOLIET – David Noel knows the steep hill behind his home in Joliet’s River Glen subdivision isn’t his. He just wants to mow it – just as he’s done for the past several years.
But the Forest Preserve District of Will County, which owns property behind his home, won’t allow it.
“What’s the difference? Why can they mow it, but I can’t?” said Noel, whose backyard abuts the district’s Hammel Woods preserve just north of Black Road.
He’s not alone in his frustration over the district’s recent decision to crack down on property owners who illegally encroach onto public land. More than 130 homeowners were caught this spring mowing or using district land for personal storage, composting or as a spot to dispose of yard waste. Some of them attended Forest Preserve District board meetings or called their local representatives to complain.
It started earlier this spring when district officials surveyed 12 of the district’s 82 boundaries and discovered more than 200 encroachments onto its preserves. Letters were sent out last month, informing property owners they were encroaching.
Marcy DeMauro, the forest preserve district’s executive director, said she understands their frustration, noting property owners have been told to stop doing something they thought was OK for years.
She noted reasons for the stepped-up encroachment enforcement is not just about those mowing the land, or using it for personal storage, but also for issues of liability and wildlife preservation. The district began stepping up its anti-encroachment efforts earlier this year after hearing reports of people poaching deer on district land, she said.
“They’d cross in, and say [they] did not see one sign, that they did not know they passed over into Forest Preserve property,” DeMauro said. “We started saying, ‘We have to walk our boundaries. We have to make sure they’re signed properly.’ Then we realized we have this encroachment issue and it’s huge. That’s how this all got started.”
Despite the letters, Noel wants to continue mowing to keep tall grasses at bay. Noel and several neighbors are worried about the district not keeping its word to maintain boundaries during the summer months. They’re concerned about the district falling behind, noting the tall grass attracts animals, such as coyotes and mosquitoes. In previous years, the boundaries had been cut only twice a year.
During the district’s operations committee meeting last week, officials said they will mow certain boundaries every two weeks. They plan to mow a 15-to-30-foot strip of grass along the boundaries in highly residential areas such as Hammel Woods and Lower Rock Run Preserve. Officials said the schedule is only pertinent during the growing season.
Marilyn Treasure, 76, is among those who were sent letters last month. The stone steps and a garden she put in nearly 20 years ago when she first moved into the subdivision must now be removed, or she’ll face a fine.
“I can’t do that,” Treasure said during last week’s Forest Preserve District of Will County Board of Commissioners’ Operations Committee meeting. “I’m a widow.”
Treasure said she’s physically incapable of removing the garden and stone steps herself. She is in talks with district officials on possible alternatives. In the end, the district will remove it and charge for services, or Treasure will have to hire someone to remove it for her, DeMauro said.
The district acquired Hammel Woods in 2010, which is why homeowners, some of whom have mowed for decades, are only just now becoming aware of their encroachments, DeMauro said.
Now that the district’s land acquisition has slowed down, DeMauro said staff is shifting its resources to land maintenance and encroachment enforcement. During the next two years, the district will survey the remaining boundaries for encroachment violations and to see where signage could be improved, she said.