Home rule battle tops River Forest stories in 2012

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By Devin Rose

Staff Reporter

The village board decided this past summer to re-open the contentious debate over whether River Forest should become a home-rule community. A referendum to that effect appeared on the November ballot. But after months of public meetings, public education efforts and visits to local organizations by village staff, roughly 80 percent of residents voted against the change.

If River Forest were a home rule community, the village could take any actions except those prohibited by the state constitution or statues. Without home rule status, officials can only take those actions specifically granted under the 1970 state constitution. Supporters, including the village board, said it would have given them needed flexibility to address local issues, and the village would not have to depend as much on Springfield for local governance. To allay fears of rampant tax increases, the board passed a self-imposed property tax cap, but opponents said they did not want to put that much power into the hands of seven elected officials.

The curious case of Rob Gaskill

In February, Rob Gaskill, a River Forest resident who operated a foster care service out of his home for 20 years with his wife, was charged with predatory criminal sexual assault against two of his foster children.

The two women, who were 19 and 21 at the time of the allegations, told River Forest police that Gaskill, 64, sexually assaulted them when one was 12 to 17 years old and the other was 6-9. He was jailed on $50 million bail, which a judge then lowered to $250,000 before he was released on bond.

Family and supporters have been present at all of his court dates, and his lawyer has said he is a highly respected member of the community where he has lived and worked for four decades. Wednesday Journal named Gaskill and his wife, Mary, Villager of the Year runners-up in 2009.

He is currently on electronic monitoring and is ordered to have no contact with minors.

DSW fills large vacancy in Town Center

DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) opened in October in the space that formerly housed Linens-N-Things in the River Forest Town Center shopping mall.

The store fills a 27,000-square-foot spot that had been empty since Linens closed in 2008. Village staff have said it was a challenging space to fill because of its location in the back corner of the complex and the large size. Sales tax generated will eventually add to the tax base.

DSW submitted plans to the village in May in hopes of securing the building permit.

Electrical aggregation

Electricity aggregation is up and running in River Forest after residents, in March, voted to approve a referendum asking if the village should provide it.

The village contracted over the summer with Integrys Energy Services Inc. to become its alternative residential energy supplier. Residents who did not opt out of the aggregation program are now paying 4.62 cents less per kilowatt hour — about 38 percent lower than ComEd's price.

Aggregation allows the village to buy blocks of energy from other sources at lower prices that were previously only available to large corporate consumers. About 61.7 percent of voters said "Yes" to the referendum question asking if the village should arrange for aggregation. River Forest was one of 66 communities asking the question. Oak Park voters approved a similar referendum in April 2011.

The Integrys price is locked in through June 2013.

Village board considers sewer alternatives

The village board is considering options, such as a new sewer system or a pump station on Lake Street, that might alleviate flooding in the north end of the village.

The board has heard opinions from engineering firms FluidClarity and Christopher Burke and Associates regarding how they can reconfigure their sewer system to avoid flooding from large storms. The Elmwood Park outfall sewer currently runs under North Avenue but can't handle more than a common rainfall without flooding because it holds waste from Chicago, Elmwood Park and the area north of Division Street in River Forest.

FluidClarity recommended upgrading the sewer so that it holds more water and reversing lateral pipes so they drain into the Greenfield Street sewer. But Burke said basements could still flood with that option in the event of extreme storms, which have been happening more frequently. Burke also analyzed the flooding likelihood with mainline sewers under North Avenue or Greenfield Street. He said streets and basements still might flood in a severe storm no matter what option the village chooses.

The project is expected to cost $15-20 million. The board will discuss a cost analysis of each option at their Jan. 22 meeting.

Options for former Hines site

Trustees heard opinions from local realtors in an effort to determine a potential tenant for the vacant former Hines Lumber site that has been closed since 2009. The status of a contract listed on a real estate website identified it as "contingent" in June, but the parcel still appears to be for sale.

Some of the options considered during meetings of the board and realtors included a high-end grocery store, a pizza pub or a larger apartment complex. The developers said Concordia Cemetery and the train tracks near the site at 7820 W. Madison St. make it hard to work with, which might make it a less than ideal retail site.

An executive at Bounce Indoor Sportsplex, which recently opened in Berwyn, said he expressed interest to village staff about the bank-owned site that is still listed for sale for $1.5 million. The price came down from $1.65 million in May. The sportsplex executive has said he wants to build two ice rinks at the site to accommodate the demand for the sport when Ridgeland Common closes each spring.

Zoning changes for home additions

After months of debates between the Zoning Board of Appeals and the village board, the two bodies reached an agreement in October that will allow residents more flexibility in planning home additions.

The ZBA proposed a change to the village zoning ordinance to allow further wall extensions for additions on homes that do not conform to the current zoning code. A planning consultant for the village had recommended expanding the wall extensions so that a higher percentage of rear addition permits over the last five years would be in line with the code.

Requests for extensions of more than 20 feet — up from the previous 12 feet — will require a public hearing.

The original amendment, recommended by village staff, would have allowed residents of nonconforming homes to build additions as long as they don't exceed the current footprint of the structure. The village argued it would provide more creativity in designing homes. But the ZBA rejected that, saying homes could be built too close together without requiring a public hearing.

St. Thomas Aquinas Priory closes

Dominican University's St. Thomas Aquinas Priory closed in June after 84 years of housing friars.

The decision was made to close after a study was commissioned by the provincial chapter of the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great in Chicago, part of an assessment of the province's Chicago area properties.

Friars who lived at the Priory Campus were reassigned to other housing. The three-floor Priory has 12 bedrooms with individual bathrooms and a common room. An administrator at the university said it will probably be used to house students after some upgrades are made.

Reader Comments

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OPRF Achievement Gap  

Posted: December 28th, 2012 1:33 PM

@Bill - people vote for who they trust and what impacts them the most. Village Boards, trust in both villages at ALL time low. Total lack of any transparency. Schools, while people do not like taxes, they are more transparent. We do not like the message, but at least they are upfront - ad the impact is our Kids. As to the PD, same thing, messaging was not good and transparency lacking. They could learn something from the schools. Openness and Honesty.

Bill from Forest Park  

Posted: December 26th, 2012 6:36 PM

Well, Things Have Changed, any detailed plan would likely include the fact that village government is responsible for 15 percent of your property tax bill. The Park District only about two percent. Meanwhile, the schools account for around 70 percent of your tax bill. So maybe YOUR plan should explain how both the village and the park district lost referenda by nearly 4-1 totals, while D90 and D200 have seen their last referenda passed? Rather odd, dontchathink?

Things Have Changed  

Posted: December 26th, 2012 12:39 PM

How does everyone on the Village Board support Home Rule (Cathy and Roma let us know if this is wrong as we are confused), but 80 per cent of the Village said no way? It's the property taxes, stupid. And the pensions. You will fail if you don't fix both. We don't want to see silly pictures of ribbon-cutting, we want detailed PLANS - detailed.

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