Friday, August 15, 2008

BENSENVILLE, Ill. | White picket fences, neatly cut lawns and backyard swing sets belie the eerie reality about Arlene Bensen’s neighborhood - Nearly everyone is gone.

The reason is easily found on official notices affixed to block after block of front doors in this otherwise picture-perfect Chicago suburb. “No trespassing,” they read, in capital letters. “This property has been acquired for the O’Hare Modernization Program.”

Mrs. Bensen, who has lived here for 52 years, is one of about 20 homeowners who refuse to move so crews can start demolishing more than 600 houses to make way for a $15 billion expansion of one of the world’s busiest airports.

“If they start bulldozing homes, I won’t leave,” said Mrs. Bensen, 74. “I’ll put on my respirator and close my doors.”

The holdouts in this village of 20,000 are at the center of a David-and-Goliath battle against Chicago, which invoked eminent domain and other laws to seize 15 percent of Bensenville for improvements at O’Hare International Airport.

The community has spent nearly $10 million fighting the O’Hare expansion since the 1990s, but is running out of options.

A judge gave Chicago the green light last week to begin demolitions, rejecting claims that the work could scatter deadly toxins. But that decision has been put on hold for 30 days to give Bensenville time to appeal.

Bensenville’s exasperated mayor said his village can’t match the might of the nation’s third-largest city.

“Is it frustrating that the clock now appears to be in the 11th hour? Absolutely,” Mayor John Geils said. “They’re literally ripping the social fabric out of this community.”

But Mr. Geils and the homeowners say they won’t surrender.

“We’re walking on eggshells,” said another holdout, Gail Flores. “But someone can’t tell you to leave. … This is America.”

Opponents of the project have posted roadside signs in Bensenville showing a sour-faced Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and a bulldozer with a red line slashed through it.

Chicago officials said the expansion project, including new runways and a new terminal, is necessary to reduce delays at O’Hare, which handles more than 900,000 flights a year. The improvements also should help ease air traffic delays nationwide.

The city insists it will not scale back the project to save homes in Bensenville.

“Not a chance,” said Rosemarie Andolino, head of the O’Hare Modernization Program. “This is about a national aviation process - a bigger picture … and the only way to solve the problem of delays and congestion is to build the full project.”

She said officials have tried to minimize the hardship for those in the demolition zones by offering market price for the homes and paying moving expenses.

The city of Chicago has complied with Bensenville ordinances that the lawns of already abandoned homes be mowed regularly.

“We’ve been very sensitive of the fact we’re displacing people,” Miss Andolino said. “We’ve gone above and beyond to be customer-friendly when we’ve impacted people’s lives.”

The O’Hare expansion is scheduled to be complete in 2014, two years before Chicago hopes to host the Summer Olympics.

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