Governor signs bill ending land dispute

Governor signs bill ending land dispute

SPRINGFIELD – A David vs. Goliath dispute over a piece of Vermilion River bottomland has been resolved in favor of the man who fought the University of Illinois for it.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has signed legislation that's been on his desk since May 30, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, that would give Urbana resident Gene Vanderport clear title to the 30-acre parcel, also claimed by the UI, on the banks of the Vermilion River.

In exchange, Vanderport agreed to pay fair market value for the property southeast of Danville and to allow the UI access to the river through his property.

"There's some history to this," said Dianna Barrows, UI director of state relations. The conflict between Vanderport and the UI has been going on since Dec. 26, 2001, when a UI representative knocked on the door of Vanderport's 89-year-old mother, who lives there, and told her the UI claimed 14 acres of the property.

"This is legislation we worked on in spring session, and the UI is supportive of it," Barrows said. "We will convey it back to Vanderport. The agreement includes some limited access for ongoing research along the river bed."

"I believe this will solve the problem that's been festering for some time," Black said when the House approved the bill.

"I have to buy the land again, but OK, it clears it up," Vanderport said. "It wasn't that expensive in 1972. Some things are worth more than dollars."

The fair market value was set by appraisal and filed with the speaker of the House, he said.

"We're very pleased," said Vanderport, an area representative for the Illinois Education Association and an experienced hand at negotiations. "This was the goal we put on the table in January 2002. Three and a half years later, we get there."

Vanderport bought the 30-acre property in 1972, a year after he graduated from the UI, to use as a retirement home for his parents and for himself.

The UI said it bought 14 acres of the parcel, the land closest to the river, in 1959, as part of the Vermilion River Observatory Research Site. A parabolic cylinder radio telescope was to have been built there, but that program was shut down in 1981, and the UI apparently forgot it owned the property.

"We were looking for something on the water, and I went out there with (former Champaign mayor) Dan McCollum, who bought 90 acres," Vanderport said of his initial purchase. "It was pristine land, untouched; some of the best deciduous forest in the area. We posted it heavily; we kept the campers, hunters and bikers out and did all the work to keep it pristine."

He also paid taxes on the land for more than 30 years and built an access road. "My grandparents were literally born right around the corner," Vanderport said. "It's a great place for canoeing, mushrooming or just to take a walk."

He said he didn't buy title insurance on the land because "nobody gets title insurance for river bottoms," so when the UI showed up with a competing claim, the issue went to court.

He's won UI successes on consecutive days. On Monday, the UI announced that visiting academic professionals voted to form a union affiliated with the IEA, something Vanderport's been trying to do for 10 years.

"Then 24 hours later, Rep. Black called me to tell me the governor signed the bill," Vanderport said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm feeling pretty good."

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