Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Trouble In The Back Forty: How We Got To Here

January’s public hearing on the 40-acre development up on Butterfield attracted a sometimes reasoned but also fiery rejection to the idea. The authorities went away ruffled and straightening their ties. The public filed out, quietly fuming, and baffled.

Bafflement prevailed because the question was asked how we ever came to this point: a 148-unit, high density housing development on the site of a recent clear-cut of over 2,000 60-year-old trees. The flames came from a few who castigated the developers and planners alike for taking advantage of the Village rules and a complacent, uninformed and trusting public.

So what happened?

The ground started to move in 2009 when the Archdiocese of Chicago signaled to the Village that they wanted to develop 97 acres of open land at the east end of St.Mary’s Lake. The Village looked at its Comprehensive Plan map and noted the parcel was drawn and zoned as Institutional Building, (IB).

Every smart village government has a Plan. This blueprint provides guidance to control against undesirable development. Our Plan had reserved the 97 acres for church buildings.

The Church however saw housing: affordable housing for Libertyville’s younger families. In a deftly cadenced move that any professional card shark would have applauded, the Church suggested to only develop the northern section, about 33 acres nearest Butterfield Road. South of that, another 7 acres of woods would be “untouched” and the bottom 57 acres would be left institutional. They asked that the 33 acres be redrawn as Residential.

Following two meetings and a lot of questions about Planned Development housing, traffic volumes, safety, isolation, tree preservation, housing affordability, open space and the wisdom of an unscheduled, redrawing of the Plan to suit the Church, they voted.   The Plan Commission went 5/2 in favor, April 2010.  The Village Trustees gave it a green light too.   33 acres were redrawn on the Plan map as Residential, and 7 acres left as Institutional.

However, the entire 97 acres are still today zoned Institutional Building.  While the Plan gives guidance, it’s the zoning which is law.

Only years later did the Church find a developer who would be happy to buy the land if they could build nearly 200 homes on the 33 acres, and take the 7 acres of woods south of the development site as well.

The developer quickly began to design the site, and eventually reduced the residential count to 148 single family dwellings, 3 & 4 bedrooms,  2,000-2,900 square foot, two-story units on tiny, fenced lots.  The designs didn’t comply with residential zone codes, but because they are a Planned Development, they got a pass.

Meanwhile the soft sell on the development commenced as multiple sets of beautiful drawings were dropped off at the Plan Commission office, with the Village Trustees, the engineering and public works departments, as well as the police, fire and the many other committees who need to vet the process.

Unfortunately, the public didn’t get wind of the proposal until a registered letter was sent to a few souls who lived within 250 feet of the site, net of any roads.  A public hearing in September hosted a small crowd of residents who, scratching their heads, asked what the heck was going on.

Even then, the public didn’t fully understand what was about to happen.

The Church, now very much on a roll, authorized the developer to get Village permission to remove 2,500 trees on the property.   After considerable expense and due diligence, the Village Trustees approved the logging on October 10.  By Thanksgiving, the trees were gone, authorized with a site development permit.

Yet no approval had come from the Village to re-zone, let alone develop the site.

The next Plan Commission meeting was postponed until January 9.  With time to study the proposal, it became clear to many that the development was off color.

Many emotional, esthetic issues entangle this debate, but high above them is the reality of traffic congestion, child safety, school crowding and Butler Lake pollution.

In addition to these challenges, the developer is attempting to sell very expensive homes to buyers who will have tenuous and dangerous access to and from their neighborhood.   The stark reality is that there is no convenient way to turn into the site, and nightmarish opportunities to exit.  A deal killer for the rational homeowner.

The Church has been suspected perhaps of disconnecting the site from Libertyville if we kibosh the deal.  Rumors run rampant that the land will host high rises, fast food stores and muffler shops if we were to lose the land to the neighboring village.

The probability of that happening is remote because none of the developer’s challenges go away.    In fact they are compounded by very expensive infrastructure needs and delays statuted in Illinois law.

So we now find the issue coming to a head with a February 27 vote:

  1. To re-draw the Plan map to include the 7 wooded acres as Residential;
  2. To re-zone all 40 acres from Institutional to Residential;
  3. To get a plat of the subdivision;
  4. To grant a special use permit to build a Planned Development;
  5. To develop a concept for the Planned Development.

The Village Trustees painted themselves into a corner back in 2010, but have had to wait 7 years for the floor to dry.  Whether they can find a solution to the conundrum is a toss-up.

Rest assured that the public is now paying attention.

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Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Warning, Sign Ahead

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The sign, like fine print, hints at bad news.

In Libertyville we are looking up every few moments to see what else has happened.

Last summer, without much ado, a sign was posted on an old playing field on the north side.    A little time later, a huge scraping of topsoil appeared, mounded like a two-story pyramid of dark chocolate.  It was soon iced with a frosty mantle of green weeds.   Five condo buildings are soon to follow.

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The new view from the treetops, sort of.

On the west side, a sign went up announcing a hearing about a corn field bordered by a tangled, but mature stand of 60-year-old trees. By October, the trees had come down. The plan calls for 148 homes.

Further south, another sign announced a hearing for a modest development of 19 houses over a small parcel of land and wetland.

Meanwhile there is a sign in front of the train station.   It’s the site for a multi-residential complex that will make rail commuting an adventure in the future. Some 150 units will be in place to hear that lonesome whistle blow, as some 46 trains roll by every day.

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Winchester: one up, and four to go.

All of these signs are caused by the popularity of a Village which has every reason to be proud. Founded in 1882, it was a remote outpost for Chicago travelers heading to Milwaukee.

Today it is a thriving, pretty town of 20,000 souls in the country, home to the #1 school district in Illinois, and #2 nationwide. It has a bustling main street that sees 23,000 cars daily, but still offers free two-hour parking on both sides, to visit the big-windowed, filigreed stores selling everything from $30,000 motor cycles to $10 hair cuts.

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Lunch in the park, in front of the Cook home.

In the Village Center,  residents lounge in a treed park hosting a vibrant, manicured rose garden, summer band concerts, lunches on the lawn, Thursday market and the view of a picturesque antiquity, the city father’s mansion now restored as a public museum.  Hungry for knowledge? The library is right there.  Just plain hungry? The Village lists over 70 restaurants and bars.

We are at the center of a giant societal magnet: everyone wants to live here.  And that is the challenge.  How do you keep that small town feel that brought you here 5, 25, or 75 years ago?

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Another housing plan, neatly drafted.

Fortunately, we have considerable oversight.  The Village has a Plan which is the blueprint for planned growth.  It has a commission that executes the Plan, and that includes sub commissions that monitor appearance and zone codes.  Hardly a tree goes down or a roof goes up that doesn’t get a committee say-so first.

Still, none of these measures and controls work if we, the residents, don’t read those pesky little signs.  Like fine print, they often signal bad news.

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School Street an urban success: asking for over $1,000,000.

The trouble is, the signs keep popping up, like Village-sponsored graffiti, and our only choice is to pay attention.  Which can be a full time job.

The Village Hall posts a schedule of committee meetings.  There is at least one meeting every night, virtually all year.  If one is diligent, the meetings could be met, except that the school boards have their monthly meetings too, so it’s difficult.

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Downtown: the Metra station gets a makeover.

Meanwhile, the developers move in, longstanding property holders look to reap their reward, and the borders of our Village are eroded and pushed, like impacted molars, causing pain with every new sign.

We can’t stop progress.  But we need to trust our Planners and Trustees to watch out for us.  In return, we do need to show up when those signs pop up.

As the saying goes, “if you don’t go to the meeting, the meeting doesn’t go your way.”

The next Public Hearing for the Butterfield proposal is February 27th, at the high school, 7pm.

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