Tiny suburb ends battle with Chicago over airport

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2009 7:41 PM

A David-and-Goliath legal battle that pitted a small suburb against the city of Chicago over the expansion of O'Hare International Airport is over.

The village of Bensenville said Monday it has agreed to end decades of court challenges, clearing a major obstacle to a $15 billion project to reduce congestion at one of the world's busiest airports.

As part of the agreement, O'Hare will make a one-off payment of $16 million to Bensenville, while the village will no longer try to prevent developers from bulldozing more than 500 Bensenville homes to make way for a new runway.

Among other considerations for ending the legal fight, Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto cited soaring legal costs that were contributing to the village's debt. As of last year, the village had spent nearly $10 million fighting the O'Hare expansion since the 1990s.

"At some point, continuing the litigation was of no benefit," Soto told reporters Monday at a news conference at Chicago's City Hall. Previous Bensenville mayors had fiercely opposed the project, accusing the nation's third-largest city of trying to bully the village of 20,000. They feared expansion would end up costing the village millions in property tax revenue each year.

Chicago invoked eminent domain and other laws to seize 15 percent of Bensenville for the O'Hare project. It argued that expanding O'Hare is vital, not only to Chicago's economy, but to easing air traffic delays nationwide.

Bensenville's attorney for much of the past 25 years said Monday's agreement is a case of a big city pushing around the little guy.

"Do I consider getting $16 million for letting them take a huge chunk of Bensenville fair? No I don't," said Joseph Karaganis, Bensenville's attorney until Soto's election earlier this year. "They've allowed the city of Chicago to destroy a huge chunk of this town without any basis."

But Soto said the never-ending legal action put a cloud of uncertainty over Bensenville, forcing property values down. He also said he hoped Chicago would now approach Bensenville with other development opportunities, including for hotels that would serve an expanded airport.

O'Hare last year opened a new runway as part of a first phase of expansion. Although it has not secured funding for a second phase, which would include the runway cutting into Bensenville, Chicago officials said they would start demolishing the Bensenville homes soon.

Until recently, several families still refused to move out of homes in the path of the planned runway. But Soto said just one family remains and has agreed to leave soon.

Chicago officials hope to have the O'Hare expansion completed by 2014.

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On the Net:

City of Chicago: http://egov.cityofchicago.org/

Village of Bensenville: http://www.bensenville.il.us/