Illinois Court Calls Chicago Landmarks Law "Vague"

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Chicago's 1927 Beaux-Arts Buckingham Fountain

Credit: Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau

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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Submitted by Fighting Fraud at: June 8, 2009
I am wandering how James Fitzgerald Smith can be elected to be a justice in Illinois, while he talks nonsenses and outright falsehoods all the time. See

Submitted by Look for Justice at: May 16, 2009
Justice James Fitzgerald Smith talks nonsence or outright falsehoods all the time. He is nothing but a shame to the Illinois legal profession. For information, please visit

Submitted by Maurice Champagne at: February 12, 2009
There is one detail of the Appellate Court's ruling that your article does not mention that is another critical issue. Section 705 of the Chicago landmark ordinance states that if the City Council does not vote to approve the recommendation of the Landmark Commission within 365 days, then the landmark status is considered approved. (Hence, according to the court ruling, the Landmark Commission is acting as an unelected legislative body.) Chicago aldermen would rather not vote for or against a particular recommendation from the Landmark Commission. However, in the future, the Chicago aldermen will have to vote to approve the Commission's recommendations and that will often be in conflict with the interests of local developers, a major source of campaign funds for these same aldermen. Preservationists may need to start political action committees to raise funds that they can donate to aldermen as a balancing force to the local developers.

Submitted by SA at: February 4, 2009
Maybe the law, framed in the terms 'value,' 'important,' 'significant,' and 'unique,' really is vague. The court would want the law to be specific, but there are some things, like history, that just can't be reduced to yes/no, black/white, right/wrong, etc. The problem isn't that the law is unjust, but that the court wants to measure legality in a way that the rest of the world doesn't support.