RMTD gets green light for East Side Transfer Center

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117631353727920.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Attorney Michael Smoron, a zoning expert, was not allowed to speak on the matter.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117631392916803.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Sosnowski warned the city may be opening itself up to litigation if it approves an incomplete plan.‘);

In a year-and-a-half, Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD) Chairman Gary Marzorati hopes to break ground on the new East Side Transfer Center on Lyford Road, just north of State Street.

Despite a Codes and Regulations Committee report recommending the city to deny RMTD’s requested zoning map amendment and special-use permit, aldermen gave the go-ahead in a 7-5 vote April 9.

The vote puts to rest a debate that has loomed over proceedings for weeks.

RMTD’s plans have met with opposition from local restaurants and hotels in what is considered a hotel-motel corridor.

Legal objections, however, were filed several days late, and the voices of neighbors would not be heard, despite the passing of a month before being voted on by the Council.

Despite state laws allowing for objections to be heard right up until the vote, Rockford’s ordinance regarding objections differs.

Hotel and motel groups have been resisting RMTD’s proposed transfer center. Had their objections been received on time, a two-thirds supermajority vote would have been required for RMTD’s requests to be approved.

Rather than ignoring concerns of neighbors who didn’t file by the objection deadline, some aldermen asked that a two-thirds vote still be required to overturn the committee report recommending denial of RMTD’s petitions.

“Twenty percent of the surrounding property owners objected to this project,” Ald. Joe Sosnowski (R-1) reported, reminding aldermen of similar opposition to a proposed dollar store on North Main Street last year. “In the spirit of the law, I think that they are pretty clear that they want to object to this project but, on a technicality, they were not allowed to be heard. To me, that’s a concern of the democratic process.”

Michael Smoron, an attorney representing proprietors of the Baymont Inn, attempted to address the issue during public participation.

Because the RMTD zoning request was to be before the Council that night, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) quickly reminded Smoron no comments regarding the petition may be made, except at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Despite citing recent state legislation allowing for concerns to be heard at the City Council level, Smoron’s comments were reduced to, “Any consideration, any time, that you can make for Baymont Inn and the principals with their concerns would be greatly appreciated.”

During the Petitions and Communications segment of the meeting, Sosnowski, whose ward is home to the proposed transfer center, relayed a letter from Winnebago County Board member Dave Fiduccia (R-4).

With the possibility of commuter rail service returning to Rockford, Fiduccia asked the Council for a “no” vote and suggested RMTD consider a location it could possibly share with Amtrak.

After much debate the week before, Sosnowski had been successful in laying over the matter until this week so he could obtain an outside legal opinion regarding RMTD’s application.

Sosnowski told fellow aldermen the Illinois Municipal League suggested two attorneys who are experts in land use and zoning.

Opponents argue RMTD’s proposal is incomplete because it does not include plans for landscaping. Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6), however, said it’s not unusual to approve plans that exclude landscaping. Jacobson indicated no permits are issued until completed plans get the nod from the city.

Sosnowski alleged the practice is inconsistent and unfair, opening the city up to possible litigation. He added plans for sidewalks, setbacks and off-street parking were also omitted from RMTD’s application.

“A project of this magnitude is important to this city,” Sosnowski acknowledged. “I don’t want to have unequal treatment and unequal application requirements.”

Incidentally, one of the experts endorsed by the Illinois Municipal League happened to be Michael Smoron, the attorney who’d attempted to speak on behalf of Baymont Inn owners, DKN Partnership, LLC.

Sosnowski asked that aldermen allow Smoron to speak briefly once the matter came up for discussion, and cited an instance late last year when aldermen allowed IceHogs coach Steve Martinson, who was not on the agenda, to make statements to the Council.

Ald. Dan Conness (D-14), who happened to be presiding over the Council on that particular night, had expressed reservations about opening a “can of worms” by allowing Martinson to speak

“When he requested to stand up and speak without going through the proper procedures, I had a pretty good objection with that,” Conness recalled, turning his attention to Sosnowski. “I just don’t think we need to add another piece of maneuvering to be able to get your point across.”

Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) noted the IceHogs issue was not an isolated incident where an outside speaker was permitted to address the council. Holt reminded aldermen it is customary, for instance, to allow outside bond counsel to speak at meetings regarding bond sales.

“Allowing someone to speak is not abnormal,” Holt argued. “I think that it’s important that if an alderman has information from an expert in the field of zoning that may assist us in making a better decision, I think that that’s appropriate.”

Still, not everyone on the Council was happy with the idea of letting Smoron speak.

“It gets to be a little unfair,” argued Ald. Doug Mark (R-3), “and that’s why we don’t really get into that debate outside of the Council floor. Usually, the aldermen bring the matter and the information in, and use that information in the discussion.”

Despite praising Sosnowski’s tenacious fight on behalf of his constituents, Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) also adamantly opposed allowing an outside speaker and urged his colleagues to act on the matter, once and for all.

“This is a simple issue of voting this up or voting this down,” Bell challenged. “Every one of you need to take a position—that you’re gonna do what you were elected to do.”

Some aldermen argued if Smoron were permitted to speak, it would open the door to presentations from the other side as well. Bell argued presentations are for committees and that it’s the Council’s duty to vote on the matter, not to procrastinate.

Sosnowski had no objection to granting RMTD equal time, but aldermen Curran, Mark, Bell, Jacobson, Conness, Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) and John Beck (R-12) cast enough “No” votes for Smoron to keep his comments to himself.

Following the vote, Smoron was asked to comment, but declined.

Acting on the opinion of attorney Ronald S. Cope, who wrote the Zoning Handbook for Municipal Officials, Sosnowski made a motion to send the matter back to the ZBA on the grounds the application was incomplete.

Cope was the second attorney recommended to Sosnowski by the Illinois Municipal League.

Arguing RMTD, by city ordinance, should re-submit a more complete plan, Sosnowski circulated a letter to aldermen from Cope, who expressed concerns about Rockford’s inconsistent zoning practices.

“Instead of hiring a PR firm to work against me on this matter, and really convolute the issue and dig up dirt on me,” Sosnowski blasted, “I would suggest that the Rockford Mass Transit District, instead of spending that money, go out and hire the person to put together a complete plan for submittal to the ZBA.”

The ZBA had voted in favor of the proposed zoning map amendment and special-use permit.

“My only goal is to make sure that, as a city, we’re moving forward in strong regional cooperation,” Sosnowski said.

Because RMTD began looking for sites 15 months ago, Sosnowski expressed distaste for not having been made aware of the proposal until it appeared on the ZBA agenda.

Because the omitted plans are technically required by ordinance, Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) supported Sosnowski’s motion.

“We need to be fair to the applicant as well as the adjacent property owners,” Holt urged. “By doing so, it would be appropriate to send this back to ZBA so that everyone is heard.”

Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) stated RMTD should at least be maintaining a dialogue with objectors to discuss their concerns. Marzor

ati later indicated he is open to talking with neighbors.

Aldermen Curran, Mark, Bell, Jacobson, Thompson-Kelly, Beck and Conness cast the votes defeating Sosnowski’s motion to send the application back to the ZBA.

Once the committee report came up for a vote, aldermen were deadlocked in a 6-6 tie. On the bubble, Mayor Morrissey joined aldermen Mark, Bell, Jacobson, Thompson-Kelly, Beck and Conness in rejecting the recommendation to deny the map amendment and special-use permit.

For RMTD to get the go-ahead for its East Side Transfer Center, the committee report would now need to be amended to be voted on for approval, rather than for denial of the requests.

Sosnowski, Carl Wasco (D-4), Nancy Johnson (D-8), Beach and Holt voted against amending the report, but were defeated.

The same aldermen stood firm when the amended report came up for passage, but RMTD got the green light by a 7-5 vote.

“The vote went about the way we thought it would go,” Marzorati indicated. “We’re happy. The process takes a while. Now, we can close on it and start the process.”

Marzorati said RMTD will be receiving $4 million in state and federal grants, and anticipates a project start within 18 months.

Defeated but still swinging, Sosnowski quickly drafted a resolution recommending the Codes and Regulations Committee form an ad-hoc committee to evaluate Rockford’s zoning practices and bring city ordinances in line with state law.

from the April 11-17, 2007, issue

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