As drivers top the crest of Algonquin Road in Barrington Hills, they’re treated to a rare sight in the Chicago area: a sweeping vista of horses grazing on rolling hills, groves of trees lining the horizon.
The verdant expanse of land that makes up that picturesque view now belongs to taxpayers, and is due eventually to open to the public, now that a judge has ruled that the property, known as Horizon Farms, belongs to the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
At nearly 400 acres, the farm is the largest single piece of land acquired by the forest preserve district since 1968. Advocates say the $14.5 million purchase marks the most important recent expansion of the preserves, and opens the way for prairie restoration, improved wildlife habitat and increased public enjoyment.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Benjamin Cox, president of Friends of the Forest Preserves, an independent not-for-profit group. “They just don’t buy property that big. It’s just not around.”
Created 100 years ago, the Cook County conservation agency purchased a lot of land through the 1970s and became the largest such district in the U.S., but since then has bought very little. While forest preserves in neighboring collar counties went on buying binges in recent decades, paid for by voter-approved loans, Cook County remained largely landlocked by development.
So after BMO Harris Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings on Horizon Farms in 2009, the district swooped in last year, negotiating with the bank to acquire the mortgage note and then buy the property.
The prior owners, Richard Cannon and Meryl Squires Cannon, had bought the land for $19 million in 2006, at the height of the real estate boom. Richard Cannon, an attorney, and Meryl Squires Cannon, founder and president of Merix Pharmaceutical Co. in Barrington, bred and raced horses.
The owners filed suit last year challenging the forest preserve acquisition of their property, arguing that the district has legal authority to buy land but not to buy mortgage notes. A judge ruled against them and the sale was finalized Monday, though they are appealing.
Reached by phone, Richard Cannon said he had understood the bank that originally gave them the loan, Amcore Bank, was going to extend the term of the payments to pay off the note, but when it required a multimillion payment a year later, the couple couldn’t get a loan right away.
“We got stuck in the middle of this foreclosure situation,” he said.
The Cannons’ suit also notes that the property was appraised for them in 2012 at only $7 million.
Cannon said he and his wife had planned to build their “dream house” and retire on the site, where they raised and bred as many as 54 horses. Now they’re living elsewhere in Barrington Hills, but they’re looking for homes for more than a dozen of the horses still on the property.
“All the Cook County residents out there ought to be saying to themselves, ‘Boy, if I (have) any attractive property that’s nearby a forest preserve, I better look out,’” he said.
The property, just west of Illinois Highway 59, contains an estate home with separate guest house, multiple barns, extensive fencing and horse paddock areas, a half-mile horse track, a staff residence, manager’s office, open fields, ponds and wooded and natural grassland areas.
Forest preserve officials have not decided what to do with the land, but will hold public hearings and solicit public input in the coming months, spokesman Don Parker said.
The district might offer some horse stable rentals or ride rentals at Horizon Farms, as it does through stables at several other preserves such as in Tinley Park and Palos Park.
While Horizon Farms is mostly pasture land, with limited natural habitat, it is a prime candidate for restoration as native prairie grassland, Parker said. That would help attract grassland birds like the Henslow’s Sparrow and Bobolink.
Situated between Spring Creek Valley and Crabtree preserves, Parker said, the farm can be an important link for animals as well as people, who might someday be able to use trails connecting the sites, as is done at other preserves.
The farm’s previous owner, the McGinley family, agreed to an easement in 2003 which limited its development to eight homes and protected more than 80 acres of Goose Lake, wetlands and forests as natural areas.
That easement remains in place regardless of who owns the property, said Brook McDonald, president of The Conservation Foundation, which helped broker the deal.
Arnold Randall, the preserves’ general superintendent, said the land was coveted partly for its large tracts of open space, wetlands and native bird habitat.
The property will be closed to the public “pending a full site assessment and any necessary improvements for access and public safety,” preserve officials said.
The only caution Cox offered was that forest preserve officials should hire outside contractors to run any horse-related enterprises because it’s beyond their expertise. Overall, he was encouraged by the expansion.
“I think it’s another sign of an administration that’s working hard to turn things around and do what’s right,” he said. “The forest preserve was asleep for a long time. … Now things have really turned around.”