Judge: Chicago can raze homes, make way for O'Hare

WHEATON, Ill. In an effort to keep the city's bulldozers out of the village, Bensenville sued Chicago last summer, claiming that mass demolitions would create a public health hazard.

It still feels that way, but after a yearlong court case on environmental issues, Bensenville lost, and the work of the bulldozer is closer.

It looks like a normal neighborhood until you look closely and you see the utility markers, the boarded up windows and weeds growing in gutters. Not many people live there anymore.

It is still Bensenville, but the city of Chicago now owns more than 550 homes there. The vast majority are vacant.

One entire section of the village on the southwest corner of O'Hare is set to be bulldozed for O'Hare expansion.

"This community is restorable," said John Geils, Bensenville Village President.

With backs against the wall, village officials made a public plea to hold off on the demolition. For the past year, Bensenville has argued that razing so many homes would release lead and other toxins, presenting a public health hazard. But a DuPage County judge Thursday afternoon ruled against Bensenville, saying "It is appropriate for demolition to commence now under the standards laid out by the expert testimony of the city of Chicago."

Bensenville will appeal and argue - as it has for years - that the city will never have the money to build its new southern runways.

"We firmly believe we are right on this. We don't want to stand here 15 years from now and tell you, 'We told you so,'" said Geils.

Just across Irving Park Road on airport property, the construction equipment is busy working the O'Hare modernization project. The city insists it will have the money to finish all the new runways by 2014, but that's dependent largely on the airlines, and they're in a financial mess. Privately, they say they are not now prepared to commit to phase two of the O'Hare expansion plan.

Back in the acquisition area, Arlene Benson remains committed to her home. She's lived there for 52 years. Her neighbors are gone, but she said she refuses to leave even if she hears the bulldozer fire up

Benson's home is one of about four dozen that Chicago has moved to condemn in the O'Hare expansion area. The city says it's pleased with the court decision. It will - as quickly as possible - begin locating and removing utilities while it sets up zones of homes that will be fenced off and then demolished.

Bernardo Flores says his American dream of living in his fully paid Bensenville home is fading.

"I work for over 20 years, two jobs, to wait for this moment. And now, they want us out of here; they want to kick us out," he said.

Flores has lived there since 1984 and has watched more than 550 neighbors sell their homes to Chicago.

"There are no regulations that protect us, so we're naked from the standpoint of the law, based on this judge's decision," Joe Karaganis, Bensenville village attorney.

Bensenville officials also attacked Mayor Richard Daley, harking back to his midnight raid to destroy Meigs Field. A sign Thursday read, "Don't Meigs with Us."

Besides, official say, who will pay for the project?

"Show us the money Mayor Daley. There is no money to build this program," Geils said.

Bensenville's president is concerned demolition crews will move in immediately. So police were protecting the community Thursday night - a plot of land that's just a bird's eye view from O'Hare's active runways.

Most of the homes were empty and the community is desolate in the 300-acre site. But Bensenville officials were not giving up hope just yet. In fact, they're going back to the court system in hopes of stopping any demolition while they appeal to the 2nd District Appellate Court.

Flores said he just hopes that's enough time.

"We still want to stay here until the very, very end," he said.

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