A climate action evanston program

Conserve Isabella Woods

An oak forest on high quality wetlands in Evanston in danger of being paved ...for a driveway! We're keeping an eye on it.

More about what we're doing

Most recent version posted on:
August 23, 2023
Isabella Woods
Isabella Woods

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About Isabella Woods

Isabella Woods is a remnant oak forest on high quality wetlands in Evanston. Public land. Swampy in wet seasons, it has many mature trees that support birdlife. We're fighting to keep it a public resource.

A driveway proposed in 2017-18 would take out most of Isabella Woods, and cut what was then estimated to be 48 trees, including 21 oaks of an average estimated age of 169 years.  Isabella Woods is public property owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) that leases it to the City of Evanston. Evanston subleases Isabella Woods to Canal Shores Golf Course, a publicly accessible golf course.

Isabella Woods lies east of CTA tracks and north of Isabella Ave., abutting the Wilmette property owned by Dick Keefe Development Co. that the proposed driveway would service. The company is a partnership between Keefe family member/s and former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton ("Keefe-Cullerton").

Why Isabella Woods deserves protection

  • Isabella Woods is public property.
  • The woods are working for nature and people: providing stormwater capture, biodiversity, clean air, a leafy refuge and more.
  • Keefe-Cullerton can sell on their property with access from the approved Maple Avenue easement. The CTA also offered an easement that Keefe-Cullerton never finalized.
  • Keefe-Cullerton just want to sell their properties to a developer for 4-5 houses instead of two because it will provide them more profit.
  • Keefe-Cullerton bought their properties aware that Wilmette would approve two houses on their property based on the CTA driveway access, not 4-5 houses.
  • MWRD has approved a wide easement from Maple Avenue to the north.
Latest road proposal to east of Isabella Woods
Latest Road proposal to east of Isabella Woods

2022 proposal: road to east of Isabella Woods

In 2022 Keefe-Cullerton asked MWRD for an easement for a road to the east of Isabella Woods from Isabella Ave., Evanston to the Wilmette Keefe property. MWRD said they had already decided the issue ... in 2017 (giving Keefe the Maple Ave. easement).

Keefe-Cullerton said the Wilmette property would be donated to nonprofit Housing Opportunity Development Corporation (HODC). Then Keefe-Cullerton could secure affordable housing tax credits for resale on a secondary market; this will provide income to Keefe-Cullerton based on the number of houses that can be developed. The property would return to Keefe-Cullerton if HODC is unable to build.

Issues with the proposal:

  • Ensure the Proposal advanced will not impact Isabella Woods, or substantially impair the publicly-accessible Canal Shores Golf Course.
  • MWRD should preserve green space as part of its 2008 policy commitment to conserving green space north of Devon.
  • No public land for private benefit. This request comes to MWRD to enhance the value of the Keefe-Cullerton property in order to secure higher value for the Keefe group through the affordable housing tax creditresale market. This proposal arose because the resale market of affordable housing tax credits exists; not to create affordable housing.
  • It has not been demonstrated that the swampy Keefe-Cullerton property is buildable.
  • No site preparation until all permits and financing in place. It shouldn’t happen that trees are cut and then financing fails, or permits are denied.
  • Bad MWRD precedent:
  • Can property owners not only shop for MWRD public land, but even be granted public land and then shop for a privately preferred option?
  • No easement by necessity has been established. Keefe-Cullerton have just asserted they are entitled to their preferred access as taxpayers. Dick Keefe bought the property subject to its landlocked position. He contracted to purchase access to the property, and never asserted any right to anything.
  • Political power and privilege. This is only before MWRD due to the political powerand privilege being brought to bear on MWRD.

At a minimum, MWRD needs a properly detailed easement request.

Its history of being threatened

Keefe-Cullerton has worked for 30 years to secure preferred driveway access to increase the development value of its property, including through Isabella Woods.  Here is a brief recap:

  • December 12, 1988, Keefe-Cullerton purchased from a bankrupt railroad the first parcel (1st parcel) a triangular property adjacent to a 2 parcel (2 parcel). The Uhlich Children’s Home owned the 2nd parcel for 40+ years; it received the land by bequest.  
  • Keefe-Cullerton and Uhlich asked the Wilmette plan commission to approve subdividing the parcels into four lots for development.  To access the two parcels, Keefe-Cullerton planned to use a strip 20’ wide that the CTA had offered.   
  • March 14, 1989 Wilmette denied their request. Wilmette informed Keefe-Cullerton that the CTA strip was not wide enough for a driveway, requiring a width of atleast 27’ to service 1-2 homes.
  • October4, 1989, the CTA authorized adding 7’ in width to the driveway strip, subject to the CTA retaining 24-hour access to the driveway for operations and maintenance. This was not yet a purchase, but indicated that the CTA would sell Keefe-Cullerton a driveway that would total 27’ x 627’.
  • Keefe-Cullerton asked Wilmette again for a 4 lot subdivision based on having a 27’ wide driveway. 
  • Wilmette said no, and prevailed in 1999 litigation brought by Keefe-Cullerton and Uhlichover that rejection. Wilmette said 4 lots would require a 60’ public right-of-way. In the litigation, Wilmette indicated that it would likely approve variances for a 1-lot development. 
  • On June 25, 2002, Wilmette voted to approve a 2-lot subdivision consisting of the 1st parcel, the 2nd parcel still owned by Uhlich and the 27’ wide CTA driveway parcels, subject to variances and conditions onutilities.
  • With the 2-lot approval in hand, on October 8, 2002, Keefe-Cullerton purchased the 2nd parcel from Uhlich.  
  • Wilmette extended the variances for more than four years through 2007 as Keefe-Cullerton worked to get utility access. 
  • Keefe-Cullerton never closed the CTA purchases.  The LWV-W recap notes: Keefe said there were ‘insurmountable obstacles” with the CTA driveway, including the CTA’s right to take over the roadway at any time, although that right had been in the proposed CTAeasements since at least when Wilmette first approved the 2-lot subdivision andzoning variances in 2002.
  • Starting in 2014, Keefe-Cullerton then lobbied MWRD for a road through Isabella Woods that would have essentially destroyed the small woods.  The City of Evanston, Wilmette Park District and many residents opposed that easement request: MWRD received about 550 letters, emails, calls and more than 30 speakers at its meetings supporting the woods, and only Joe Keefe in public opposition. The MWRD Board unanimously denied that request on May 18, 2017.
  • The MWRD Board on November 15, 2018, voted 5-4 in favor of an easement to Maple Avenue. Specifically MWRD approved “authority to grant” to Cook County a 75-year, approximately 60’ x 426’ easement from Maple Avenue to the Keefe-Cullerton parcels. This authority has never been formally committed to a written easement. This vote still stands, granting Keefe-Cullerton the easement from Maple Ave.
Area of Maple Ave Easement, Oct 2018


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Gardening that Matters video presentation

Gardening that Matters. Get Started or Enhance your Native Garden.  March 2023 presentation to North Shore Senior Center's Tuesday Club. A simple way to take action for climate, community healthand biodiversity: Swap out your lawn for native plants.  Reconsidering theculture of lawns. Why it matters, steps to prioritize, how to get started, andhow to amplify the change. Leslie Shad of Natural Habitat Evanston presents.

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Evanston Roundtable guest essay on 2022 Keefe proposal for a driveway near Isabella Woods

Evanston Roundtable guest essay on 2022 Keefe proposal for a driveway near Isabella Woods

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Isabella Woods recap by the League of Women Voters, Wilmette

History of purchasing, conflict over Isabella Woods

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Chicago Audubon Society Plants for Birds

Chicago Audubon Society Plants for Birds

Chicago Audubon Society Plants for BirdsChicago Audubon Society Plants for Birds

Chicago Region Invasives

INVASIVE PLANTS OF THE CHICAGO REGION, An identification guide to 32 invasive or native aggressive plants most damaging to local ecosystems. Compiled by Robert Sullivan, Argonne National Laboratory (Retired) and Henrietta Saunders, University of Illinois Master Naturalist. 2022

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League of Women Voters - Wilmette recap of the history regarding Isabella Woods

League of Women Voters - Wilmette recap of the political and transactional history regarding Isabella Woods

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City of Evanston Resolution against the 2022 Keefe-Cullerton proposal

City of Evanston resolution opposing 2022 Keefe proposal re new driveway

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You're Needed! Here Are Some Involvement Opportunities

Donating to Climate Action Evanston and earmarking your donation for Natural Habitat Evanston. You can further earmark your donation to one of our initiatives.

Oaktober: Harvest Fest and native Tree Plantings

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Celebrate nature. Join in events throughout fall: Sept 30 Harvest Fest at Eggleston Park, and tree plantings throughout October

Take the Pollinator and Bird Pledge

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Join our Pollinator Pledge and let the city and landscapers know we care about sustainable yards. Take an optional yard sign to spread the word.

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Stay updated on green goings on in Evanston, workdays, advocacy issues and more.

Buffalo Grass Anyone?

Buffalo GrassBuffalo Grass

$25/bag to local residents (pickup; no shipping). We also have some $5 seed packets of bottlebrush and little bluestem grass. While supplies last. Emails should include your phone number and which species you are requesting. Pay by check payable to Citizens’ Greener Evanston at pickup.

Volunteer at plantings and invasive removals: parks and schools

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Help at outdoor workdays

Join No Mow May

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Rethink how you Lawn

Sign on: Northwestern students Petition for Bird-Friendly Films at Mudd Library

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Northwestern students Petition for Bird-Friendly Films at Mudd Library. Mudd Library accounts for over 14% of bird deaths and injuries on campus each year. Applying patterned window film to a portion of the building would dramatically reduce collisions that are fatal to birds.

More Ways to Volunteer: Spread the word

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Share out brochures, doorhangers, or flyers. Collect a bunch of materials on the 5th Ward Tree Giveaway, Pollinator Pledge, Eco landscaping, Yard care, Light pollution, Leaf blowers are an eco-disaster, or Buffalo Grass.

Join our Facebook Group

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Get updates and share your thoughts on our FB Group. You can also check out our FB page here https://www.facebook.com/NaturalHabitatEvanston

More yard signs: Mowing, Leaves, Leafblowers?

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Just want to spread the word on certain steps? Mow Less-Leave Leaves (2-sided yard sign) or Leafblowers sign

Join the Isabella Woods Newsletter

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Get news the next time there is a threat to Isabella Woods. (Only sent when there is news.)

Certify with National Wildlife Federation

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Provide Food, Water, Shelter, Places to Raise Young and Sustainable Steps for wildlife. It helps Evanston maintain its NWF Community-wide Wildlife Habitat certification.