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DYER — Weeks of house hunting have convinced Daniel and Carol Szymanski nothing can replace their Cape Cod on Hart Street.

They had little choice but to keep looking until a few days ago because Lake County government was about to bulldoze it to make way for a newer, larger bridge over a creek that runs nearby.

Carol summed up her frustrations in an email to Lake County Commissioner Jerry Tippy, R-Schererville, last week.

"We have been nothing but good citizens of Dyer for 25 years. We vote, we participate in community events, our son has been involved in Dyer sports teams, I have served on jury duty, we take care of our home and property and have relationships with our neighbors. In short, we are the kind of residents we assume Lake County wants."

Tippy said last week he has put a hold on the project and plans to meet with the Szymanskis.

Although the Szymanskis live within Dyer town limits, the condemnation proceedings are driven by county officials responsible for more than 130 bridges all over Lake County — including the Hart Street span — and 600 miles of drainage ditches, including Hart Ditch, the waterway near their doorstep.

Tippy said after hearing from the family he started looking into the matter and found the project has been in the works since before he took office in 2017.

"It's just been going and going and then boom, eminent domain is taking their house. This is why you have elected officials to represent the people. I want a meeting with them to reassure them and explain to them what their options are."

"We don't want to move. We don't want to stand in the way of helping the people of Dyer either, but they're stealing our house," David said.

The Szymanskis purchased the two-bedroom house, built in 1937 and a stone's throw from the town's police, fire and emergency services center, for $85,000 and moved in January 1993, shortly after they married.

David said they have probably invested $100,000 over the years in a new roof, new siding, new windows and other remodeling.

Hart Ditch, also known as Plum Creek, has been a troublesome neighbor. The waterway, which drains 45 square miles of Dyer, Munster and part of Illinois's rural Will County, inflicted millions of dollars in damage on the Franciscan Health Dyer hospital and nearby homes during a 2007 storm.

David said they have had to rebuild their basement twice because of major floods, but he is accustomed to the threat and doesn't mind patrolling his basement for seepage during heavy rains.

The nearby two-lane bridge is now the bigger issue in their lives. That concrete box beam structure, built in 1970, is scheduled for reconstruction later this year.

The Szymanskis found this out only in a June 27 letter from Duane Alverson, chief engineer for the Lake County Highway Department, that stated, "there will be impacts to your properties." They later learned the county needed their entire 125 foot by 150 foot parcel.

The county also is buying two other nearby homes. Carol said those homeowners have accepted the county's offers.

Alverson said the replacement bridge will be several feet longer and 2.5 feet higher to provide more space for floodwaters to flow north. It also will be wider by several feet to accommodate a sidewalk on its east side.

"That bridge has needed to be replaced for some time and widened. The bridge will be safer. We are trying to make an overall improvement  for the greater area," Dyer Town Manager Tom DeGiulio said.

"I know it's difficult and contentious. It is an emotional thing. Financially, they should be OK," DeGiulio said.

"We are losing our neighbors of 25 years. We are 51 and 53 years old and will have to be taking out a new mortgage with (only) five years left to pay on this home. This is the only home our son has known," Carol said prior to Tippy's intervention. 

"We have taken home improvement loans and have done work on our home, so our mortgage is not paid off. We are not being compensated for any of that. We are being forced out, in fact expected to not put up a fight, " she said.

They county offered them $170,000 a month ago. They are awaiting their own appraiser's estimate and have tentatively counter-offered $250,000 since they haven't been able to find a similar house under that figure.

She said they are constrained from looking further afield because taxes in neighboring Illinois are many times higher, her husband works in the Chicago area, their 10-year-old goes to parochial school in Schererville, and they have no interest in moving entirely out of The Region.

"The reasons the bridge's span was expanded is because the engineers wanted to allow for more flow in the Hart Ditch," Tippy said. "That is a benefit for the town of Dyer, but we are working on a major project on Hart Ditch in Munster. I'm concerned these two projects may be in conflict with each other."

William Emerson Jr., the county surveyor, said the county is talking with Highland, Munster and the Little Calumet River Basin Commission to stabilize Hart Ditch north of Dyer where other homes are dangerously close to the waterway's unstable banks.

"I am adamantly opposed to eminent domain when it comes to taking people's homes. There has to be a very good reason. I want to know if we can do what we want to accomplish by minimizing the design a little bit," Tippy said. 

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.