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Change To Allow Cell Towers In City Parks Alarms Park Groups Who Say There Was No Community Input

An ordinance to allow "freestanding facilities" up to 150 feet tall in city parks was submitted to City Council Sept. 18, but activist groups say no one informed them of the proposal until Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Pilsen in September 2019.
Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to change the city’s zoning code to allow cell towers in city parks alarmed activists this week who said they were caught off guard and upset the community wasn’t consulted.

The ordinance, submitted to the City Council Sept. 18, would add “parks and open space” to the list of zoning districts where “freestanding facilities” up to 150 feet tall are allowed.

Activist groups were stunned Monday when they discovered the ordinance was up for a hearing on Tuesday. After concerns were raised, the mayor’s office is set to meet with the groups to vet the ordinance.

The proposal did not receive its scheduled hearing Tuesday in the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.

The mayor’s office indicated the zoning change is aimed at existing towers in parks, and is an effort to get those into compliance.

Lightfoot spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said the matter was deferred “to allow for further review on how the city’s zoning requirements for freestanding communications facilities located in the city’s largest parks can be brought into compliance with other special purpose districts, including planned manufacturing districts and transportation districts.

“We anticipate bringing the measures forward at a later council date, and will ensure there’s been a thorough opportunity to brief Friends of the Parks and other stakeholders on the proposed changes.”

The mayor’s office told the non-profit watchdog Friends of the Parks Tuesday afternoon that action on the ordinance would be deferred, executive director Juanita Irizarry said.

“The main gist of the conversation was that it has become clear that there was a gap between [the mayor’s] intention and what the language potentially signified,” Irizarry said. “They will take the time to meet with [Friends of the Parks] and others to clarify and vet.”

The ordinance proposal “seems to us like a revenue generation tactic,” Irizarry said.

“It makes me wonder if [Lightfoot] is looking for revenue for a Park District that’s preparing for a potential strike,” she said.

Irizarry said Lightfoot did not initially reach out to Friends of the Parks regarding the ordinance. The group only became aware of the proposal when browsing committee agendas on Monday, nearly a month after the proposal was submitted.

In reaching out to other organizations working to protect the city’s green spaces, Friends of the Parks found they were also unaware of the mayor’s plans, Irizarry said.

Friends of the Parks will “absolutely fight something like this going forward without significant participation” in the process, Irizarry said.

The deferred action is “a good indication that the administration is open to public discussion and comments,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, adding that it “reflects the promised transparency of our newly elected officials.”

The city should continue to delay action until public hearings on the ordinance are held, Miller said. He wants to see the public get an opportunity to propose new ideas while getting a better understanding of the mayor’s intentions.

With all proposals, the city should reach out to residents and the media with an announcement outlining their intentions and the benefit to the public, Miller said. If there has been such an announcement, he said he was not aware of one.

Lightfoot’s submission to council included the following statement:

At the request of the Commissioner of Planning and Development, I transmit herewith an ordinance amending the Zoning Code regarding siting of wireless communication facilities in parks and open space areas. Your favorable consideration of this ordinance will be appreciated.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

The proposal caps the height of a “freestanding facility” at 150 feet, but other issues like are unaddressed — namely the number of components a structure could have, its impact on viewsheds and construction requirements, Miller said.

Miller is concerned the ordinance’s passage would set a precedent, allowing the city to use parkland for other commercial revenue streams like billboards.

The proposal also doesn’t consider the fact that many Chicago parks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

Modifications to those properties would trigger a federal review, as has been the case for the proposed use of Jackson Park land for the Obama Presidential Center.