Will Riverside-Brookfield High School and the village of Brookfield go to trial over 18 parking spots? With the sides unable to reach an agreement over the size of a proposed parking lot on school-owned land west of the football field, it’s possible.
On Aug. 24, the District 208 Board of Education announced in a letter to school parents and posted on the school’s website that the Brookfield Village Board had rejected “out of hand” the school’s compromise proposal to build a 63-spot parking lot on a field owned by the high school north of Hollywood School.
The letter did not mention that village officials had told school officials in settlement discussions that they would accept a 45-space parking lot on that field.
School and village officials have held two meetings recently to try and settle a lawsuit filed by District 208 in 2015. The suit came after the Brookfield Village Board voted to reject the high school’s request for zoning variances and a special use permit that would have allowed RBHS to build a 91-space parking lot and new tennis courts. The most recent meeting occurred Aug. 17.
But with the village rejecting the school’s latest proposal, talks have broken down and each side is blaming the other.
The size of the parking lot is the apparent point of contention. The village has no problem with RBHS building new tennis courts to replace the ones torn up in anticipation of a new parking lot.
“We offered up 45 parking spots,” said Brookfield Village President Kit Ketchmark in a telephone interview with the Landmark.
On Aug. 25, Ketchmark posted his own lengthy open letter to residents on the village’s website in response to RBHS.
“It is apparent the school and its administration continue to thumb their noses at the village of Brookfield, at the residents they serve, and at the legal process that they themselves initiated because they did not like a decision that the village board made to enforce its zoning laws that protect its residents,” Ketchmark wrote in the letter.
The proposal rejected by the village included some things the village had asked for, such as a 25-foot setback of from Hollywood Avenue, planting trees to shield the view of the parking lot and five new tennis courts the high school hopes to build.
“This plan represents a true improvement for the community and goes a long way toward meeting the needs of the district,” the RBHS letter said.
The idea of a new parking lot on land north of Hollywood School drew strong opposition from neighbors when it was first proposed in 2014, with many Hollywood residents decrying the loss of the open field that once stood there.
RBHS has tried to counter that opposition by stressing the school’s need for more parking and noting that the school does not own any of the parking lots it now uses. The main faculty parking lot is on land leased from the Brookfield Zoo and the 108-spot student parking lot along Rockefeller Avenue is leased from the village of Brookfield.
The high school has also responded to neighbor concerns by no longer renting out its football stadium to the Chicago Mustangs semipro team. That rental brought about $10,000 in annual revenue, but neighbors claimed the team’s presence was a nuisance.
The RBHS letter ends with what seems to be a clear attempt to win public favor and put pressure on the Brookfield Village Board.
“We will take every opportunity to demonstrate to the village board that this compromise is in everyone’s best interest,” the school board’s letter stated. “We will seek your support as we urge the village to reconsider its position.”
In a phone interview with the Landmark on Aug, 25, Ketchmark called the school board’s letter “a bullying tactic” and expressed surprise that it was sent. According to Ketchmark, discussions with the school district about the parking lot were not at an impasse.
“Our last discussion was actually a good, cordial meeting between both sides and we talked about different things and possibly trying to reach out to the zoo and the county,” Ketchmark said. “They came back with the 63 spots. We told them where we were at, and there’s a court hearing and then this gets sent out. I don’t know how else you view it other than they’re trying to bully us in public to get their way. I mean, we’ve moved on this; we’ve tried to work them.”
The two sides appeared in court on Aug. 23 and the new judge assigned to the case, Judge Celia Gamrath, gave the go ahead for discovery to begin and set the next court date for April 10, 2017. A trial appears to be more than a year away, if it comes to that.
“We don’t want to spend two years and all the legal dollars on this,” Ketchmark said. “We’re trying to work together on this, but they’ve taken a different approach.”
The lawyer representing RBHS said that 63 new parking spots is as low as school officials are willing to go, noting that their initial idea was for a 150-space parking lot, without on-campus tennis courts.
The school’s formal proposal called for a 91-space parking lot. In settlement talks RBHS officials first offered to come down to 75 spaces. The lawyer said that she does not expect further settlement talks unless the village reconsiders the school’s proposal that it just rejected.
Ketchmark countered that the village has come up from zero and is trying to be flexible and work with school officials.
“We started out at zero and we are moving up to 45,” Ketchmark said. “I think that we’ve been more than fair. I think the school board could go through this entire process for a couple years and end up with zero.”
The village holds a strong bargaining chip. The high school’s 10-year lease with the village for the Rockefeller Avenue student parking lot expires in a year. The village has said that if RBHS wins in a trial, it would not renew the lease.
“We still have a lease that’s expiring,” Ketchmark said. “The [village] board has expressed to them if they could through this process and are successful, the board would look at not renewing the agreement on Rockefeller. So they’ll end up with 90-some parking spots and lose 108.”
But RBHS officials long to have parking on land they own and not be at the mercy of others. RBHS officials decried the village’s attempt to use renewal of the Rockefeller lease as leverage.
In response to Ketchmark’s comment’s, school board president Mike Welch criticized the village’s threat to not renew the Rockefeller lease, saying it would make parking and traffic problems in the area worse.
He also reiterated the school board’s complaint that the village board’s decision to deny the school district’s plan, which was recommended unanimously by the village’s planning and zoning commission, was the result of the board caving in to political pressure from a handful of residents.
“The district is reaching out to the entire school community in the hope and belief that an informed community will help the village trustees recognize the benefits to the entire community of the 63-space parking lot and other significant improvements proposed by the district in order to end the dispute without further litigation,” Welch said. “The district continues to be confident in its ultimate success in court, but believes the compromise it has proposed is the best and most economical way to end this dispute quickly.”
Ketchmark said he believes that there is enough parking in the area if all public entities work together, adding that he has reached out again to Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski to see if Brookfield Zoo and the school could share some parking. Ketchmark says that he is trying to work toward a solution and isn’t interested in fighting with the school board.
“You have the zoo, you have the county, there has to be a way for all parties to work together,” Ketchmark said.