Pop-up PUDs and the Geneva Way: The Cornerstone Moment

“The owner of the property for which a planned unit development is sought may initiate a request for a special use planned unit development. (Ord. 95-28, 5-1-1995)”

The above quote is from the Geneva Municipal Code. The provision describes how a Planned Unit Development Special Use is to be lawfully considered in Geneva. In less than 60 days between early March and early May of 2022, a 250-unit LIHTC affordable housing project was floated and withdrawn by an out-of-state developer identified as “Cornerstone” for the SW corner of State Street and Kirk Road.

The process was initiated in violation of the plain language of the Geneva Municipal Code. The would-be developer was not “the owner of the property.” Several reasons make this trip-over-the-starting-line comedic pratfall less than hilarious.

First, if rules matter then those who intend to obey them and those who must enforce them should agree on their meanings. Statutes and Codes provide specific meanings for words that their framers judged to be so important that ambiguity should be removed. An example is that the Geneva Code defines “shall” as “must.” For non-defined words, a standard Mirriam Webster dictionary is cited.

The “Geneva Way” of applying words and rules is a wink and a nod.

“Common law” (also known as “case law”) is established by courts of law when a dispute cannot be resolved by reaching a mutual agreement on both the law and the facts. Few ordinary citizens can afford the keys to the courthouse if they believe their rights have been violated by the City of Geneva. 

Zoning and land use disputes have given rise to the colloquialism: “In Geneva, you have all the rights you can afford.” This is because the Geneva City Council treats stop signs as suggestions while  Illinois law 625 ILCS 5/11-1204(b), “requires drivers to obey all stop signs. Drivers must stop at any intersection with a stop sign before entering the crosswalk or, if there is no crosswalk, at a clearly marked stop line.” 

In fact, Geneva Mayor Burns was formerly so zealous in his passion for code-related public welfare that he was a vocal supporter of red-light cameras in Geneva. Or at least he was until the political backlash changed his reasoning. The problem for Geneva property owners now is that the mayor-for-life believes that when the Municipal Code reads “shall” it really means “maybe,” and entire provisions may be totally ignored when they are inconvenient. The mayor orders his appointed and employed underlings to adopt his definitions and unscrupulous tactics.

So, a Genevan whose property rights are ignored by the Geneva City Council when it misapplies its own code has few affordable options. Trust in the process evaporates, ratifying the ever more widely held proposition that rules are only made to be broken. 

Second, the Cornerstone application demonstrates a reason the Geneva Municipal Code requires the owner of the property in question to initiate a Planned Unit Development Special Use. The applicant must have “skin in the game” so that the taxpayers are not on the hook to pay for the staff time and expense when a tire-kicker comes to town. The Batavia experience with its One Washington Place project should be a learning experience. Batavia incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses over many years only to have the developer walk away literally the day before construction was to begin.

Third, if the provision that only allows the property owner the privilege of initiating a Planned Unit Development Special Use is ignored (as it was in the case of Cornerstone) the process will just end with an Approved Planned Unit Development Special Use like Emma’s Landing. Emma’s developer “initiated” the privileged process, and the “official” “owner” never owned the property. The Emma’s Landing fraud, where the City was the real owner and partner in the crime, also literally began with the first step.

Who would trust this puppet Geneva City Council?


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