Tinley Park, IL. (ECWd) –
If you have been following this story over the last month, the Village of Tinley Park has been in revolt against its elected officials since late January 2016 over a proposed low income housing project that was set to be built at the corner of 183rd and Oak Park Avenue in what is known as the “Legacy District” in downtown Tinley Park. The project was stalled when surprised residents, who were blindsided by the project, rose up against the Village because they felt the public’s trust had been broken. The main bone of contention is that the Village’s “Legacy Plan” (a development plan for the Village’s downtown) and subsequent “Legacy Code” (the zoning codes for that downtown area) seemed to have been circumnavigated and usurped to benefit an out of state company without the Village Mayor or Trustees full understanding. The public doesn’t know who to trust and feels betrayed. You can read our earlier coverage of this here.
The Village somehow kept this gestating housing project totally under wraps and out of the public’s view until Dennis Sullivan at The Chicago Tribune got wind of it and published an article about “The Reserve” project proposed by the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation. This is a developer from Ohio with a checkered past dotted with lawsuits and scandal. Citizens have questioned the Village Board about who was responsible for a suspicious rezoning change that seemingly allowed the builder to be in “precise compliance” (in its own interpretation) even though the public believed that the Legacy Code required commercial space on the first floor to drive business and revenue to the downtown area. The Reserve housing project has no such commercial space that the public was counting on and it appears that the code was changed by employees in the Planning Department specifically to allow the out of town Buckeye to build as they pleased. Tinley Park’s Mayor and several Trustees have gone on record saying that it appears at a minimum that improper actions were taken by Village staff that need investigation. The Planning Director, Amy Connolly, is on paid administrative leave as this investigation is undertaken.
Concerned about the lack of transparency, the Citizens of Tinley Park questioned the board at several meetings demanding accountability. On February 2nd, the Village trustees told the public they should hold their concerns and go instead to the Planning Commission’s next meeting because this Commission was supposedly in charge of the Reserve project. This was perceived by many in the community like elected officials passing the buck and claiming they weren’t responsible for what was happening in their own village.
On February 4th, the citizens showed up again at the Planning Commission meeting as instructed by the Village Board, this time to ask who was responsible for the mysterious zoning changes that led to Buckeye sailing through a $16 million housing project under the radar when most regular homeowners in the Village have trouble getting a permit to build a fence without having to appear in open public meetings multiple times to plead their case on the record. There were no answers from the Planning Commission or the Planning Department staff. No one seemed to know anything, or they weren’t talking. The Commission voted to table the vote until an investigation could be done but didn’t seem to want to listen to the public’s concerns because it insisted that nothing could be done and it had no authority over anything. The acting Chair of the Planning Commission, Art Pierce, appears to have violated the Open Meetings Act by refusing to allow anyone in the public to address the Planning Director during public comment (and the Attorney General’s Office of the PAC is currently looking into that alleged violation). Recently, seven of the nine planning commissioners (including Pierce) resigned suddenly with no other explanations other than “family responsibilities” or “illness.”
The two remaining Planning Commissioners are Timothy Stanton, a 60 year resident of Tinley Park, and Mark Moylan, a local State Farm Insurance owner spoke to freelance reporter Megan Fox yesterday. When asked if either would be resigning soon, Stanton and Moylan spoke of their love for Tinley Park and a willingness to stick it out to see their responsibilities through to the end. Both had only good things to say about the commissioners who resigned
“Everybody has their reasons and these people are great people,” said Stanton about his fellow commissioners.
Edited: The sudden resignation of so many commission members cast suspicion over their motives in the community. Moylan expressed sadness that so many resigned at once. “There is a lot of misconception about the difference between what the Planning Commission does and what the staff does. They are all great people,” he said, “and they had a heart for the Village and knowledge of the codes and it is a shame to lose a lot of good insight.”
What Stanton and Moylan made very clear was that no one on the Planning Commission was aware of The Reserve project until January 21st at the Planning Commission meeting when Planning Director Amy Connolly and the Buckeye Developer brought the plan forward at the very end of the meeting. The Planning Department staff, headed up by Connolly, had allegedly been working behind the scenes with Buckeye as early as March of 2015, according to an unnamed source at the Village. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests uncovered emails between Planning Department staff and Buckeye developers as early as June 2015 but reporters are still waiting on the emails from Connolly to Buckeye in March 2015. The Village has seemingly stalled production of these documents and is so far refusing to turn them over, despite multiple outstanding FOIA requests from several requesters Trustee Jacob Vandenberg stated at the Feb. 4th Planning Commission meeting that he has seen all the emails and he reports that what he read “made him sick.” The public still has not been able to access those emails in their entirety, despite Vandenberg ostentatiously presenting what he claimed were 2,500 pages of emails on a table in bound books (which he claimed he read between Feb. 2nd and Feb. 4th in preparation for his speech at the Planning Commission meeting).
Moylan maintains that whatever the Planning Department staff was up to, the Planning Commission was kept in the dark about it. Instead of the Planning Commission being privy to the projects in the Village, the Planning Department staff appears to have been running things behind the curtain (and possibly well exceeding their authority and job descriptions). At the revealing January 21st Planning Commission meeting, when the commissioners first heard of the Reserve project, it appeared that Planning Department staff were still trying to hide the project’s true purpose from the commissioners by keeping it for last on the agenda and trying to rush it through when everyone was tired, bored, and wanting to go home.
“At the very end of the meeting, The Reserve was brought up. Bob McClellan [Commissioner] asked David Petroni [from Buckeye] about what kind of rents the building would bring in. The developer began to tell us that some would be as low as $400 a month and we knew then that something was wrong. We had not been told what kind of development it was. The meeting ended with the knowledge that something was wrong with this project but we were expected to vote on it on February 4th,” said Moylan.
On February 4th, the Planning Commission meeting was packed to the rafters with concerned Tinley Park citizens who had just found out that a residential building was going up on Oak Park Avenue with no commercial space like they had been promised to offset high property taxes. On top of the zoning issue, the parking was insufficient for 47 families as well as the location being in a high traffic and already congested area. Every year, the traffic in the area is already a nightmare due to summer concerts and events around town and even on a random weekend in the dead of winter that intersection of 183rd and Oak Park Avenue is busy and dangerous. 47 residential units with only enough parking for one car per unit will be a traffic management disaster if the Reserve ever gets built. The Village Manager admitted that no traffic study was ever commissioned, but residents protested that there should have been.
Moylan expressed his main concern was that the Village Board appeared to have been bypassed. “No one was happy about having to vote on a project this big without board approval.” Further inquiry revealed that the Planning Commission had never approved such a large scale project without the elected Village Board of Trustees approval.
“Mostly, the commission is there to deal with small details like variances. All we do is decide if a project meets codes. All the planning is done by the Planning [Department] staff, not the [Planning] Commission. We only see a project after it has worked with police, public works or engineering and other departments to meet codes. Then the Planning Commission checks to make sure all those codes are met and issues variances if needed. Never before has a project this big in Tinley Park not required [elected] board approval,” sighed Moylan.
The zoning end-runs that Planning Director Connolly wrote essentially changed the Legacy Code requirement from “commercial required” to “commercial allowed.” This was passed by the Village board in September 2015. Moylan remembered it coming before them shortly before that. Everything was rushed and done with a strange urgency by the Planning Department employees.
“We were told that the change would make it easier for companies to move into Tinley Park. We had no idea that any specific project like The Reserve would benefit or was even in the works!” When questioned if there is any board that is responsible for choosing what types of businesses would be beneficial to Tinley Park, Moylan was unsure citing the Economic Commercial Commission as a possible answer.
What frustrates citizens of Tinley Park so much and has destroyed the public’s trust is the constant reminder that no one has come forward to take responsibility for the lack of accountability. But a mystery surrounding the Planning Commission and its responsibilities has finally been solved thanks to the Moylan and Stanton who were willing to come forward and explain the commission’s inner workings and it seems that the responsibility for the wrongdoing doesn’t lie with the Planning Commissioners.
Harry Truman famously had a plaque on his desk saying the buck stopped with him. Where does the buck stop in Tinley Park?
Who will the public be able to go to in their local government to receive answers for who is really running this Village and doing the things that created this giant mess?