Zoning board still doesn't rule on OPRF lights

Not enough board members show up to vote

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By ALEX MCLEESE

It's not over yet-and won't be until at least Feb. 6. The seven-member Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals was missing two members on Tuesday night-one who had earlier recused herself and another who had a scheduling conflict-and the board fell one vote short of approving or denying Oak Park and River Forest High School's application for the variances in zoning needed to install four nearly 100-foot light towers at its football stadium.

Neighbors who oppose the lights, meanwhile, have put a stay on a separate lawsuit filed on Oct. 31 in Cook County Chancery Court against OPRF, the Village of Oak Park, the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals, the Department of Community Planning and Village Zoning Administrator Mike Bruce until after the ZBA's ruling. The suit claims the high school needs a special-use permit, not just variances, to install the light towers.

Steve Rouse, the chair of the ZBA, who voted in favor of the variances, said the board member who was absent because of a scheduling coflict, Alan Raphael, would review the record from the meeting and render his decision at the board meeting on Feb. 6. The vote presently stands at three to two in favor of the lights, but four votes are needed to approve the variances.

Raphael will need to review over an hour of closing arguments, followed by the ZBA's deliberations.

Two of the high school's proposed towers are located in the R-7 Multiple-Family Zone District and the other two are located in the R-2 Single-Family Zone District. The maximum height for structures in those districts is 45 feet. The high school is seeking variances from the zoning code to build 88- to 100-foot towers.

The lawyers' closing arguments and the ZBA's deliberations focused primarily on four of the zoning ordinance's seven standards for granting variances.

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The first standard considered was whether the high school is not able to yield a reasonable return-discussed at the meeting in non-monetary terms-without the variances. The second was whether the variances would alleviate some demonstrable and unusual hardship for the high school. The third was whether the proposed variances would not be materially detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to other property in the neighborhood. And the fourth was whether the proposed variances would alter the essential character of the neighborhood.

In his closing argument, Gene Armstrong, the lawyer for OPRF, contended that the school would suffer a hardship without lights because there is a growing demand for team sports, and the lighting would provide more field space. He added that there was no evidence that lights higher than 40 feet would cause injury to property in the neighborhood, and asserted that the essential character of the neighborhood includes the high school.

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Mark Sargis, the lawyer for the neighbors who oppose the lights, countered that busing of student athletes to practices would continue with or without lights, meaning the hardship would not be alleviated by the variances. Though he conceded a few less people would attend games, he asserted that does not make for an unusual hardship. He added that light and noise pollution and an increase in traffic would harm the neighbors more than the lights would help the high school.

Armstrong retorted in his rebuttal that while the neighbors were arguing that the activities that would be made possible by the proposed lights were the problem, not their height or placement, OPRF could offer night football even if it were restricted to shorter towers.

After the closing arguments, the ZBA discussed whether the high school would suffer hardship from being limited to 45-foot towers.

Rouse argued that the 45-foot lights were the worst options, while the 100-foot lights would be safer and bleed less light into the neighborhood. He added that busing of athletes to practices would decrease with the addition of lights.

But Pamela Freese, who voted against the variances for the high school, said she was not sure what the hardship would be without lights because the cost of busing student-athletes to practices would not go away with them.

For Robert Schoen, who also voted against the high school's application, the deciding factor was that the lights would alter the essential character of the neighborhood.

Adrienne Eyer disagreed. She voted for the variances, arguing that the essential nature of the neighborhood must include the high school.

After the inconclusive 3-2 vote, Terry Lieber, one of the most active neighbors in opposing the lights, said she was "very disappointed we're not walking out with a decision about the variance."

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