Park District looks askew at gift from church
BY BOB OKON firstname.lastname@example.org November 3, 2013 9:32PM
Updated: November 4, 2013 2:22AM
What looked like a good deal a year ago for both a local church and the Plainfiield Park District could be scrapped next month.
The Plainfield parks executive director describes a lease making 15 acres available for playing fields and four acres available for a future park at essentially no cost for the land as a “bad deal” and wants it reconsidered at the November board meeting.
St. John Lutheran Church Pastor Peter Holmer, meanwhile, questions whether the church should go forward not knowing if the park district is a reliable partner in the deal.
“Needless to say, we’re pretty gun shy at this point,” said Holmer, who contends the park district has already failed to live up to an obligation to plant grass seed for the entire site at Caton Farm and Drauden Roads in the city of Joliet.
The church, located outside the Louis Joliet Mall in Joliet, owns the land and plans to build a branch there someday — probably at least 10 years from now. In the meantime, the land would be available for playing fields for soccer and other sports in a section of the Plainfield Park District without much park land now. Eventually, the church would donate four acres for a permanent park on land that it would not use.
The plan was hailed as a win-win arrangement for both sides last year when it was made under a different park administration and with a different park board. The church benefits, too, because the arrangement would lower property taxes on the site and put the park district in charge of maintenance.
Now, both sides appear suspicious of the other’s motives.
Holmer said he learned that the park board was taking a vote to exit the deal when he saw it on an agenda on the park district website. But he was not contacted by park district staff.
“They didn’t tell anybody,” Holmer said, adding he “felt betrayed. That’s not much of a partnership.”
Park Executive Director Garrett Peck acknowledged someone should have contacted Holmer and said someone was supposed to. But, he said, there is good reason to take a hard look at the land deal made with the church because the park district could end up paying the church’s development costs the way it stands now.
The matter will go the park board for some kind of vote at its Nov. 13 meeting, Peck said.
“Something will be on the agenda — whether it’s to amend the lease or to dissolve the lease,” Peck said. “But we need to resolve this.”
Peck got the job of executive director in May after two new park board members were elected. A new board majority forced out the previous executive director, who was in the processes of retiring anyway, and put Peck in the job instead of another park district staffer who had already been hired for the position by the previous park board. Peck is also a Plainfield village trustee and was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the state Senate in 2012 but has no previous experience as a park district manager.
The lease deal with the church appears to be one more area where new park leadership wants to change direction, although the board voted 3-2 this month against a motion to exit the agreement. Peck was not at that meeting, and some expect the vote to be different when he is there.
Peck said the original lease is too open-ended and could leave the park district on the hook paying costs for development that will benefit the church and not a future park. He even posed the possibility that the church could take over tennis courts and other facilities developed by the park district.
At least one problem with the lease is that it listed the rental price for the land at $10 a year instead of $1 a year, a legal technicality that could impede attempts to get state grants for future park development and prevents the church from getting a bigger break on property taxes.
When the lease was brought to the park board in September to change the rent to $1, park commissioners began asking more questions, Peck said. Some park commissioners were disturbed to hear that the eventual cost of a 4-acre park on land to be donated by the church could be $1 million. That would pay for tennis courts, volleyball courts and an in-line hockey rink, although the plan was to only develop those facilities if the park district could get a state grant to cover half the costs.
“Four acres for a million dollars is a bad deal,” Peck said. “The money can be reprioritized elsewhere. You can get a better bang for your buck.”
Even if the park district were only to install playing fields on the site, that would also cost money. And, Peck said, the park district would have to put in parking and some kind of rest rooms or portable toilets.
Peck also said the deal poses potential problems with “public perception,” saying some people may question a local government going into a land deal with a church. He noted that one park board member, Mary Kay Lundeman, is a member of St. John Lutheran Church.
“She hasn’t disclosed that, but I think that should be brought to the public,” Peck said.
Lundeman acknowledged that she was a member of the church and said she consulted with the park board attorney, who advised her that there was no problem with her voting on the matter. Peck, too, said her vote was not illegal.
But Lundeman said she believed her membership in the church was being made part of the case against the park.
She still believes the deal with St. John’s is a good one, said Lundeman, who voted against ending the lease.
“There’s no cost of the land to us at all,” she said. “It’s the church giving to the park district, not us giving to them.”
Board President Peter Hurtado, who voted to exit the lease, could not be reached for comment.