February 23, 2001 Chicago Tribune

Tribune Staff Writers
February 23, 2001

Peotone-area residents who expect that the state will buy their property for an airport should not start checking their mailboxes just yet.

Before state officials begin to buy land for a proposed third airport near this rural town 25 miles south of Chicago, consultants will need months to complete the surveying and appraising of property. And those consultants have not yet been hired, said Dick Adorjan, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

But with Gov. George Ryan's directive Wednesday to start buying land for an airport, transportation officials have begun drafting a proposal for the legislature, which will set up procedures for the multimillion-dollar land purchases.

IDOT officials also are preparing guidelines for the competitive bidding for land-acquisition consultants. It may take three or four months to hire consultants, Adorjan said.

During a speech proposing his fiscal 2002 budget, Ryan emphasized the need for a third airport and proposed another $15 million be placed in a land-acquisition fund. If his proposal is approved, it would bring the balance in the fund to $45 million.

IDOT officials estimate an airport would cost about $500 million to $600 million, including the price of nearly 4,200 acres.

The airport would include a noise buffer zone and one main runway--about 12,000 feet long--to accommodate all types of aircraft. The passenger terminal would initially house 12 gates, serving both large airliners and commuter planes. There also would be a shorter crosswind runway and a parallel taxiway, along with facilities for cargo planes and smaller private planes.

The state has drawn a footprint of the airport site, stretching across thousands of acres between Peotone and Beecher, its neighbor to the east. But IDOT won't target specific parcels for several months, Adorjan said.

When the parcels are chosen, owners are likely to get a letter first, then a phone call from a state consultants, Adorjan said, followed by negotiations over a price.

Rumors have swirled for years about who owns the land that would be developed in the airport project. Much of it is held in secret bank trusts, which, under Illinois law, allow landowners to conceal their identity.

Although speculators shrouding their interests in bank trusts probably will be willing sellers, many longtime residents of the area are expected to resist the state's plans.

Peotone Mayor Richard Benson, who sides with opponents who fear an airport will ruin Peotone's rural appeal, said he expects state officials to face numerous land battles.

Whether they intend to fight, the people whose homes lie in the airport footprint will have months of anxious waiting ahead.

William Hunt and his wife are building a house in the area of the proposed airport. The recent political shifts that have made the airport seem more possible have taken the transplants from Willow Springs by surprise.

"We moved here understanding it might happen, but it's been going on such a long time, and we thought that Mayor [Richard] Daley would make it go away," said Hunt, 65. "This is going to be our retirement home, but now our brand new home will probably be bulldozed."

The Chicago mayor is opposed to the third airport, but his clout in the matter appears to be dwindling. Democrat Bill Clinton is no longer in the White House, and Bill Daley, one of the mayor's brothers, is no longer secretary of commerce.

The new Republican administration has made clear its support for the Peotone proposal. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in recent meetings on Capitol Hill that he views relief of air-traffic congestion in Chicago as a key to improving travel nationwide, and he wants the Peotone review process completed by year's end.

Although work on specific plans for the airport has been held up for years by a lack of a political commitment to the proposal, numerous environmental studies on the suitability of the site have proceeded, Adorjan said.

"This has been one of the most-studied airports ever undertaken in the United States," he said.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.), whose district includes Chicago's South Side and the south suburbs, is one of three Illinois congressmen organizing a meeting next month with White House and Cabinet officials on the Peotone proposal. Jackson believes the proposal is gaining real momentum.

"It's been a sea change in the last couple of months," said Jackson's spokesman, Rick Bryant. "Gov. Ryan sent a message that there seems to be support for this to happen at both the state and federal level."