It wasn’t a pretty process, and it took too darn long.
But the Park Ridge City Council finally made the right decision last Monday (Feb. 1) night in dropping the City’s appeal of Judge Kathleen Pantle’s November 2015 decision in favor of owner/developer John O’Flaherty and his 400 W. Talcott LLC’s plan to develop the eponymous parcel.
Judge Pantle’s reversed the decision of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission to deny the developer’s site plan review application because of the size and scale of the four-story, 22-residential unit structure – even though it met the City’s then-existing Zoning Code standards for B-1 “business” property, which lacked the same kind of residential density restrictions contained in the Code’s “R” (for “Residential”) zoning classifications.
Pantle ruled that P&Z abused its discretion in denying the Code-compliant site plan.
That always sounded like the right decision to us. As we wrote in our 12.22.15 post:
“We’re no fans of increased residential density for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the likelihood such increased density brings more flooding and more school-aged kids adding to our school-tax deficits. But when a developer satisfies our Zoning Code requirements, that should be the end of it – especially when both the City’s former and current law firms agree that the likelihood of the City’s prevailing on appeal is low.”
And way back on 10.22.14, our post noted how “O’Flaherty and his attorney rightly pointed out that developers buy property only after analyzing the zoning parameters, with the purchase price based on what they should be able to build there” – a “determination…based on what increasingly appears to be a vague, ambiguous and unacceptably inadequate Zoning Code” that makes development unpredictable, and therefore “unfriendly,” to business and residents alike.
But what appears to have happened here is that both the folks on P&Z and, subsequently, a four-alderman majority of the Council, let themselves get stampeded into wrong decisions in order to appease a roomful of vocal, specially-interested residents – commonly known as NIMBYs for “Not In My Back Yard” – who really didn’t seem to care one whit about the provisions of the Zoning Code or the developer’s compliance with those provisions.
That’s their right as NIMBYs. And we’re big fans of NIMBYs because they tend to shine a spotlight on issues that non-NIMBYs often overlook – as in this case, where the Talcott NIMBYs helped the City identify loopholes in the Zoning Code, at least one or two of which have since been closed.
Unfortunately, both P&Z and the Council majority seem to have let their good judgment fall prey to the desires of the NIMBYs’ special-interests.
We’ve often called that “political pandering” but perhaps a more accurate term is the “political appeasement.” It’s an inherent danger when elected or appointed officials try to be politicians instead of statesmen, and look for the most politically expedient solution instead of figuring out what the right course of action is and then taking it – special interests, no matter how vocal, be damned.
Compounding that wrong decision by Acting Mayor Maloney and Alds. Moran, Milissis and Shubert was Milissis’ comment in December that an appeal was part of “a strategy to drag this out longer and fight it” notwithstanding that “the likelihood of us winning is slim to none” based on advice of counsel.
That invited a January 14, 2016 letter from the developer’s attorney to the City, charging that the City’s decision to appeal appeared to be “an effort to appease disgruntled residents who would like to make this process as difficult, lengthy and expensive…as possible” for the developer. That arguably opened the City up to potential liability for tens of thousands of dollars of the developer’s attorneys’ fees as a judicial sanction for bad-faith prosecution of the appeal, as well as money damages for any extraordinary costs resulting from delay caused by the appeal.
Ald. Milissis, an attorney, certainly knew better than that. So we have to assume that his vote and his comments were mistakes; and that they were the product of a misguided intention to appease those vocal opponents of this development rather than the product of any over-arching public policy tone-deafness.
Two of those vocal opponents reportedly have threatened their own legal action against the developer, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. The likelihood of individuals spending their own money on attorneys and lawsuits tends to be inversely proportional to the frequency, intensity and volume of their beefs that “government” should do that heavy lifting for them.
Notwithstanding the mis-steps, however, the Council wised up and did what it should have done from the start: listened to the beefers, realized that the developer’s compliance with the Zoning Code made everything legal, and told the beefers “No.”
Public officials should never be human windsocks, moving reflexively in response to the winds of public sentiment – especially when that sentiment is expressed by a small-but-vocal special-interest minority. And extra-especially when that small-but-vocal minority loudly proclaims that it represents a “majority” – but doesn’t have the signed and notarized proxies to back up such grandiose proclamations.
Non-windsock public officials were basically what Madison was advocating when he explained the function of the ideal people’s representative in Federalist No. 10:
[T]o refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
That “public voice” was finally pronounced – correctly and by the entire Council – last Monday night. For that all Park Ridge taxpayers should be grateful.
Yes, it shouldn’t have taken that long.
Yes, it shouldn’t have taken a closed-session meeting – especially in light of the fact that the advice of both the City’s former counsel and its current counsel against prosecuting the appeal was already public knowledge.
But at least it was done before the Council wasted $5-10,000 of the taxpayers’ money on a losing appeal. And it was done before the Council risked saddling those same taxpayers with tens of thousands of additional dollars for the developer’s attorneys’ fees and delay damages the appellate court could have awarded as sanctions.
We trust this latest Council vote demonstrates that the errant majority, and the minority aldermen as well, have learned an important lesson about the dangers inherent in playing the politics of appeasement.
As Churchill once said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”
No matter how noisy it might get and how sharp it says its teeth are, however, a special interest is not a crocodile.
So why treat it like one?
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