Whiteco deal a violation of public trust

Opinion

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The masthead of an old Oak Park weekly newspaper once read "The public press, no less than public office, is a public trust." The Public Trust... people understood the concept back then and this was in the days when attending college was more of a rarity than it is today, at a time when practically nobody went to graduate school.

Last week we discussed the lack of tax revenue to the taxing bodies from the Whiteco project and also discovered that Whiteco had built the exact same building in another city without a nickel of subsidy. The week before I demonstrated that the developer would not have any of his own money invested in the project. This week we will look into an Illinois Supreme Court decision that should have stopped this scheme before it began and take a look at our local ordinance that has caused such a massive rupture of the public trust.

Just about anybody can take something that the Founding Fathers said or did and turn it into a specious argument without merit. However, there are perhaps a dozen precepts they left us with that we all hold inviolate. One of these cornerstone precepts is property rights. The right of an individual to hold and maintain their property within the laws of the state. There also happens to be an equal and opposite right of the government to take those same rights away from any property owner, with proper remuneration, when their property can be better used for a public purpose. These public purposes have been held by the courts to include: building a school, building a library, building parks, tearing down housing slums, building an expressway, building public transportation and building a parking lot. In the old days it was called a condemnation proceeding, today it is referred to as eminent domain.

Like any well intentioned law the right of eminent domain started to be abused. What towns across our state began doing, including ours, is carving out properties they wanted to develop, forcing property owners into court, taking their private property away from them, then turning it over to a developer at ridiculous mark down rates, sometimes for free. What it amounted to was the local government choosing to enrich a developer at the expense of not only the private citizen who was forced to sell, but then the public as a whole who was forced to pay. And none of these deals came cheap.

Well, fortunately for us, the Illinois Supreme Court, in a case known as SWIDA, decided to put a halt to all this. In a sweeping decision several years ago they told communities to stop taking property away from citizens by using eminent domain and giving it or selling it to a developer. Villages can still buy and sell all the property they want, they can still enrich developers with public money, they just can't use property acquired under eminent domain to do so. Here is my favorite passage from that decision:

"If property ownership is to remain what our forefathers intended it to be, if it is to remain a part of the liberty we cherish, the economic byproducts of a private capitalist's ability to develop land cannot justify a surrender of ownership to eminent domain."

Now you're asking, "What has this to do with Whiteco, Mr. Hamer?" Well it turns out that much of the land that sits under the Holley Court Garage and parking lot was acquired by either eminent domain proceedings or the threat of eminent domain proceedings over the past 60 years. This included 28 Victorian structures and a church. As recently as five years ago the village moved under an eminent domain proceeding against the Holley Court Senior Building and the owners of the old Marshall Field building to take away covenant rights they had to the property. The only land that is an exception that I know of is the Hoppe building. Those sixteen owners sold to the village via negotiation, so we can do whatever we want with that parcel. But everything else must remain for public use. We can make it a park, build a school, build an arts center, build a new town hall, put our public works there, but not give it to Whiteco. Heck, now we can't even sell it. It's ours for good.

Now what has brought all of this down on our heads? Our Planned Unit Development Ordinance. Originally designed for cities and towns who were without hope for development, this ordinance was foisted upon us by a resume-driven staff, solely championed by developers and their agents and voted on by trustees over the objections of our village manager. Our now departed staff originally told us that it was only going to be used on Madison, North Avenue and Roosevelt Road. As if! It turns out, wily condo developers, eager to reap profits in a neighborhood of large single family homes, rushed into the Historic Districts and built lot line to lot line projects. Developers could sell out these buildings quickly; who wouldn't want a $350,000 condo when it's next to a $700,000 famous architect designed single family home in a nationally recognized Historic District?

This ordinance single handedly threw out our zoning laws. Now anything, at any density, with any variation, commercial or residential, could go up anywhere our will o' the wisp trustees so desire. And it caused problems all over town. It's pitted neighbor against neighbor, neighbor against developer and neighbor against trustee.

In one area of town it's even caused a developer to go from a proposed project of low density town homes with set backs, to high density lot line to lot line condos with commercial. Its implementation has been put into the hands of staff, to be voted on by trustees, who don't ever want to say "no" to a developer. It is the most gonzo, nutso, crazy ordinance ever introduced in one of the finest suburbs ever created. An epoch changing recipe for public disaster on a scale hitherto unknown in our quality community since the previous developer caused devastation of the 1920s and the 1960s.

Remember the Public Trust? It is this concept of our local government as caretakers of our trust that has been so violated in all this. Trustees and staff have used the Public Trust as a doormat to wipe their feet on, as they charge into the offices of developers to turn over the deed to their neighbors' property, along with the property rights of the adjoining neighborhood, solely for developer profit. It is a shameful practice that leaves me gasping with incredulity and it has to stop.

Let this be the last word to the current guardians of our Public Trust and a lesson for those who come after. It appears that the Whiteco deal was put together behind closed doors by an MBA finance major from the University of Chicago on their side and an MBA finance major from another university on our side. Somehow, in the excitement of looking at all the zeros, they forgot about us.

Paul Hamer
Oak Park

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