Court: Moving graves is OK Chicago can move cemetery for O'Hare expansion, judges rule

A federal appeals court dealt a blow Thursday to opponents of O'Hare International Airport expansion when it ruled a small cemetery near Bensenville could be bulldozed by the city of Chicago.

But the 158-year-old cemetery is not expected to be dug up and relocated in the near future. Expansion opponents plan on taking their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if need be.

"This is long from done," Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson said Thursday. "This is just a round that we lost, but this is a championship fight."

St. Johannes Cemetery, with its 1,400 graves, has been holding up one of the most expensive airport expansion projects in the country. While the city faces other legal challenges, this case has been considered by Chicago to be the last major hurdle in court.

The city hopes to dig up the remains at the cemetery, move the graves to other cemeteries, and pave it over for a new runway.

Chicago is working on a $7.5 billion project for a western terminal and six parallel runways aimed at reducing delays at one of the most congested airstrips in the nation.

The project's cost has ballooned to well over $8 billion in just its first two years. It is also behind schedule, with the latest completion date given as 2016, about a four-year delay from projections released when the plan was proposed in 2001.

Further down the road, Chicago officials hope to add a new eastern terminal and improvements like runway patching and baggage security.

Defended by a fiercely protective church - St. John's Evangelical Church - the cemetery has stalled work on the expansion's second phase.

For the past 18 months, the federal appellate court in Chicago mulled over the arguments in the suit that delved into the rights of religious organizations when a secular entity wants their land.

The judges ruled Thursday that Chicago's desire to relocate the cemetery did not violate religious protection laws, allowing the city to move forward.

Chicago's next move is to contact St. John's church to make a $630,000 offer for the cemetery.

If the church doesn't take it, the city would move forward with condemnation proceedings in DuPage County court, said Jamie Rhee, general counsel for the expansion project.

Joe Karaganis, attorney for O'Hare opponents, said Thursday that Chicago can count on the church turning its offer down and attempting to block any condemnation moves made by the city.

Bensenville and Elk Grove Village officials - opponents of airport expansion for decades - have continued an ongoing multifront legal challenge aimed at stalling or ending the expansion. Over the past four years, the villages have spent more than $10 million on the fight.

The expansion will level more than 500 homes and businesses in Elk Grove Village and Bensenville, and move all the graves at St. Johannes.

Because the church wants to save its cemetery, it has joined forces with the villages and signed on to the lawsuit.

Other lawsuits against Chicago are still pending. The towns are fighting the expansion plans through another federal court and trying to stall the demolition of homes in Bensenville through the DuPage County court.

- Daily Herald staff writer Kat Zeman contributed to this report.