Illinois Court Calls Chicago Landmarks Law "Vague"
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Feb. 3, 2009
For the first time in more than four decades, a court has raised serious constitutional questions about the law that protects Chicago's 50 historic districts and 250 historic sites.
"Everyone was shocked," says Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois. "If the Chicago ordinance is under fire, then every city ordinance could be under fire."
Last Friday, the Illinois Appellate Court described the designation criteria in Chicago's 41-year-old landmarks law as "vague" and ordered a Cook County court to decide whether the ordinance is unconstitutional. The appeals court opinion went on to describe the designation criteria as "unconstitutionally vague," leaving the trial court little room to determine otherwise. In response, the City of Chicago announced plans to appeal the decision to the state supreme court.
"Right now, the landmarks ordinance is still in effect," says Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city's law department. "We disagree with the appellate court's analysis of the ordinance and the applicable case law, and their findings. We believe we have strong grounds to appeal their decision."
The Jan. 30 ruling criticized the wording of the city's seven criteria for considering landmark status. (A nomination must meet at least two criteria before the city council will approve designation). "We believe that the terms 'value,' 'important,' 'significant,' and 'unique' are vague, ambiguous, and overly broad," wrote Appellate Court Judge James Fitzgerald Smith.
The judge's 17-page ruling also took issue with the way the city selects the eight members of the landmarks commission. He also said that the commission had the equivalent of the power of a legislative body. (In fact, the commission merely makes recommendations to the city council, which has the last word; only if the city council fails to act within a year of a nomination does the commission's recommendation become law by default.)
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin blasted Smith and the two other judges who joined in the ruling. "Perhaps the judges would like all potential landmarks to be ranked on a supposedly objective numerical scale, like Olympic figure skating or gymnastics," Kamin wrote in his online column "The Skyline."
This dispute began in 2006, when the landmarks commission recommended that parts of Lincoln Park and East Village be designated city landmark districts. Some residents accepted the designation as a practical way to halt the construction of McMansions, but residents Albert Hanna and Carol Mrowka fought it with a lawsuit.
Preservationists, gravely concerned, strongly support the City's decision to seek review by the Illinois Supreme Court. "Chicago's landmarks law has designation criteria similar to those of many other cities and towns across the country," says Paul Edmondson, National Trust general counsel. He notes that a number of courts around the country have upheld preservation ordinances against similar attacks. "We believe that a considered review by the state Supreme Court will uphold this important and effective preservation law," Edmondson says.
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