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Council OKs land use plan

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At its Monday, Oct. 19, virtual meeting, Village Council unanimously approved a new comprehensive plan, which will guide the Village’s development and land use decisions through 2030.

Council passed the plan on Monday with no additional amendments after making changes to a parking concept and Glass Farm development plan earlier this month.

Residents raised concerns for a second straight meeting about possible development on Mills Lawn. This time, neighbors of the property presented a petition, signed by 122 residents, urging Council to amend the comprehensive land use plan by designating the western two-thirds of Mills Lawn as parks and open space.

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At present, the nine-acre parcel’s designation is “public use,” but its underlying zoning is high-density residential if the school district ever stopped using the property for a school.

Council member Laura Curliss made a motion to enact that change. However, it failed to garner a second.

Several Council members balked at making the late change to the plan.

Council President Brian Housh said that the change was too substantive and that it was “not really in our purview to be making a decision like that at the Council table.”

Housh recommended that those concerned about the development of Mills Lawn take the matter to the Planning Commission or to the school board.

“We should be focused on the goal at hand, and that is we have a great comp plan that has got a lot of input,” he said.

In changes earlier this month, Council pulled from the plan a diagram showing expanded parking along Elm and Phillips streets near Mills Lawn, and reduced the density of potential residential development on the Village-owned Glass Farm.

In not making the proposed change to Mills Lawn, Council members also pointed to a memo they received from Village Solicitor Breanne Parcels earlier in the day, which was not shared with the public at or before the meeting.

Parcels summarized her opinion at the meeting that the change may be too substantive for Council to make after it received Planning Commission’s approval. She also questioned “if breaking it up [the property on the map] is legally appropriate,” along with the Village’s role with regard to a property it does not own.

“The Village has to respect that that is school board property, it is not Village-owned property,” Parcels said.

But Curliss said that designating a land use for a property that the Village does not own is typical in a comprehensive plan.

“As far as a comp plan stating a vision for private property, that’s what a comp plan does,” she said.

Curliss also shared excerpts from a 1948 letter from then-Antioch College President Douglas McGregor stating the college’s intentions for the land, which it gave to the school district for free and without deed restrictions. The letter states that the college wishes that the natural beauty of the property be preserved and that the property benefit the whole community.

“That property was given to the school board to promote the welfare of the community generally with recreational facilities,” Curliss said.

During the public hearing, several concerned neighbors said they were disappointed that Council declined to make the change. Parker Buckley said the petition, which had grown to include more than 200 signatures by the time of the meeting, showed “a huge amount of interest in the village in the future of Mills Lawn.”

“There has been a continuing fear that the property might be sold for development,” he said.

Julie Ford said she was frustrated by the process, since neighbors had assumed the property was slated for green space due to its designation as “public use” in the plan, which does not clarify its underlying zoning as high-density residential.

“There is a disconnect between what that says and what it actually means,” she said.

Ford said she also thinks the Village should entertain public comment about Mills Lawn since the school board “is not immediately looking to do anything with Mills Lawn.”

Maria Booth called Mills Lawn “the heart of our village” and “sacred space” and argued that “it was always intended to be protected as green space,” citing Antioch College’s intentions when it gave the school district the land.

Neighbors also bristled at not being directly consulted as “stakeholders” in the property’s future, and worried about the fate of the more than 30 memorial trees on the property, planted by the Village Tree Committee.

This reporter added that, based upon historical News articles, the Village participated in discussions with the college and school board about the use of Mills Lawn from 1945 to 1948, and passed a resolution agreeing to tentative deed restrictions that would have kept it from being developed. In the end, however, no deed restrictions were added to the property.

Other Council members suggested passing the comprehensive plan “as is” and revisiting the Mills Lawn issue at another time.

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen said that Mills Lawn’s future needs further deliberation, which “starts with the school’s involvement.”

“To make any kind of change at this point would be rushing something that is significant,” she said.

Council member Kevin Stokes said a  “cautious approach” is needed in moving forward with regards to Mills Lawn, while Lisa Kreeger said the Village needs to “work collaboratively with stakeholders” on the land’s future.

“We owe respect and collaboration and communication to the superintendent of schools, as well as the school board. We didn’t open this up as an open dialogue with them,” Kreeger said.

At a Council meeting earlier this month, comprehensive land use plan consultant Aaron Sorrell said that representatives of the schools participated in stakeholder meetings and that, based upon the feedback received at that time, the land use designation was not changed in the plan. 

No school board representative spoke at either Council meeting. However, in an email from School Board President Steve Conn that was included in the Council packet, Conn wrote that Council “does not have jurisdiction over this or any District property.” He also thanked the Village manager for consulting with the district during the development of the plan.

“But we need to remind everyone that any discussion about the future of the Mills Lawn property must begin with the School District,” he added.

In Solicitor Parcels’ memo to Council, later obtained through a public records request, she states her legal opinion that Curliss’ proposal to designate a portion of Mills Lawn as parks and open space is “inappropriate based on the Village Charter, Village Ordinances and relevant legal authority.” Parcels wrote that the change could be construed as “spot zoning,” and could draw a legal challenge from the school district.

“Council Member Curliss and the petitioners would have the Village essentially render a portion of the school district’s property useless for any practical purpose other than a park,” she wrote. “If Council approves this motion, it will likely draw litigation from the school district and, in my legal opinion, that challenge would be a waste of taxpayer funds.”

Housh ended the public hearing by saying that the Village may facilitate the conversation with the school board, but that villagers’ energy on the issue needs to be “directed at the right place.”

“We do need to be proactive, we do need to address this. The school board needs to be the head of this conversation,” he said.

Other items from Council’s Oct. 19 regular meeting will be in next week’s News.

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