It ain’t over ’til it’s over, an old saying goes. And the controversy over proposed athletic field lights in Keystone Park West definitely ain’t over.
Monday night following a three hour meeting, the River Forest Village Board voted 4-2 to send the park district’s amended development application back to the Development Review Board for further consideration. The village board’s decision will now be forwarded to the DRB, which is expected to begin re-addressing the issue most likely at its Feb. 2 meeting. A recommendation is expected back before the village board sometime in the next two to three months.
Trustee Barbara Graham’s motion seeks to accomplish several things, including having a more definitive vote by the DRB, as well clarifying the reasoning behind any decision.
“I think we should have, in a matter this important, the opinion of everybody,” said Graham, referring to the DRB’s Nov. 17 split 3-3 vote on the issue of recommending lights. The vote was tied due to board member James Levy’s absence. Citing both support for Graham’s reasoning and a concern that the village board do everything reasonable to avoid a potential law suit, Trustee Michael O’Connell seconded the motion. “I for one don’t want to pay (lawyer’s fees) for both sides of a feud,” said O’Connell.
O’Connell, among others, questioned perceived inconsistencies on how the DRB’s Findings of Fact were interpreted. Trustee Al Swanson, along with Trustee Michael O’Brien, asked why questions the trustees were discussing Monday hadn’t been addressed by the DRB during three hearings. “Those questions should have been asked,” said Swanson, “and they weren’t.”
The DRB will now have a second opportunity to address those questions. While the exact wording of the instructions the village board will send the DRB isn’t clear yet, five general points were made by trustees Monday night.
? There was concern that an outside lighting expert, independent from the park district’s lighting contractor, needed to be retained.
? Wanted additional verification of demand from various youth programs for additional field availability.
? Wanted all materials received by the village board since the close of DRB deliberations, including Monday’s public comment, to be forwarded to the DRB for their consideration.
? Wanted the DRB to re-examine the application’s standards in terms of a more detailed discussion and greater specificity regarding reason for finding an individual standard being either “met” or “unmet.”
? Wanted the DRB to look at the park district’s lighting policy regarding both the existing east field and tennis court lighting and the proposed west field lighting, to see if tighter restrictions on their use could make their presence more acceptable to neighbors. Any lighting restrictions or alterations to the lights, several trustees also noted afterward should be requirements, rather than non-binding “recommendations.”
Monday night the park board was clearly following the advice of its special legal counsel, Robert K. Bush, who in early December urged them to get their supporters to speak before the village board. Fifteen individuals spoke in favor of lights, basically saying that lights were critical to meeting the demand for youth sports fields. Lights opponents did the same, however, with 13 against the application, basically arguing that the neighborhood has already compromised with the installation of east field lights, and that that is enough of an imposition.
Former park board president Patrick Deady, who could not attend the board meeting, “strongly” urged the village board in a detailed six page letter dated Dec. 20 to not approve the Keystone lights. Deady argued that the lights are not consistent with the village’s Comprehensive Plan, that the park district has not demonstrated an actual need for the lights, and further that the district had failed to demonstrate that it would work to minimize the impact of lights on the surrounding area.
Deady’s was one of 13 letters in the board packet. Not one supported west field lights.
“I believe the lights in the eastern part of the park were a mistake,” wrote Henry Gregory, who also spoke before the village board. “Don’t follow them up with another mistake.”
“The park district has constituencies besides our youth sports organizations and they have been left out of the park’s plans. That is most unfortunate,” wrote David and Deborah Watrach.
As he has done consistently since assuming the president’s role at the park district in April, Steve Dudek took the lead in stating the district’s argument for lights, spending some 45 minutes presenting his case and debating with trustees. Dudek’s argument hinges primarily on what he said is an “explosive” growth in demand for athletic field game and practice space, and overwhelming resident support. There were, he said, 1,700 signatures for and just 170 signatures against lights. The park district, he said, has provided expert evidence bolstering its case. Opponents, Dudek said, had offered no substantive proof of any negative impact on the neighborhood.
At several points Dudek was taken to task by trustees and President Frank Paris for what they said were inaccuracies or inconsistencies. O’Brien questioned Dudek’s contention that some 1,700 people had forwarded petition signatures to the board in support of lights, saying he thought the number was closer to 300. It was Paris, though, who criticized Dudek’s rhetoric and figures most bluntly. When Dudek reiterated his previously stated charge that the current Town Center Tax Increment Finance district was costing the park district $155,000 per year, Paris replied, “I think you’ve made a complete misstatement.” Without the TIF district, Paris said, the park district’s tax base would be 25 percent less.
When Dudek later replied “I’ll have to respectfully disagree,” Paris shot back, “Then you better tell me where your facts are.” When Dudek offered to respond in writing, Paris responded, “Don’t even bother, because you don’t have any such facts, and you know it very well.”
Park board Commissioner Holly Hirst, who had sparred repeatedly with Dudek over his conduct and overall approach related to the lights application, said Tuesday that while she’s tired of that state of affairs, she nonetheless supports his ultimate goal of lights in Keystone. Echoing the opinions of several lights opponents who admitted that they might compromise if they could trust Dudek and the park board to do the same, Hirst characterized the solution as being a matter of style and respect for opposing opinions.
“They just need to be respected and accommodated,” she said of neighborhood opponents. That sentiment echoed the comments of several others involved in the issue who, while not wanting to speak on the record yet regarding Monday’s developments, expressed hope that common ground could be found between the two groups.