Cook County Circuit Court Judge Susan Fox Gillis Thursday told attorneys and representatives of the Park District of La Grange and the La Grange Friends of the Park (LGFP) that they had arrived at their "last chance" to reach a settlement agreement and end two years of litigation over the park district’s efforts to sell 2.82 acres of Gordon Park to developer Atlantic Realty Partners (ARP).
If the talks are not successful, Gillis said she will proceed with a formal hearing over which she will determine the outcome. The next status hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17.
"If you don’t settle here, I have the control," Gillis said. "I make the decisions. I say what happens. This is your last chance."
The judge delivered her ultimatum at the conclusion of two hours of closed-session talks in which she met separately with both sides, as well as with ARP President Richard Aaronson and his attorney.
ARP is not a party to the litigation but set the stage for serious discussion of a settlement earlier this month when Aaronson announced his company was no longer interested in purchasing the larger of two park parcels it originally sought to acquire. In response to the deteriorating economy, ARP decided to reduce the scale and scope of its redevelopment of the former Rich Port YMCA site, a project known as La Grange Place.
Aaronson's courtroom visit was his first since litigation over the proposed parkland sale began two years ago.
"This matter seems to be arriving at a crescendo so I thought it would be appropriate to participate," Aaronson said.
Thursday's talks were unexpected and followed a scheduled hearing on a motion for discovery filed by LGFP attorneys more than four weeks ago.
John Shapiro, an attorney for the park district, argued that LGFP was not entitled to demand that the park district produce documents and depositions that the objectors say are necessary to make their case that the park board’s reasons for declaring the 2.82 acres are “no longer needed or useful” as parkland.
Shapiro based his argument on an interpretation of the Illinois Park District Code that would have the court conduct only an "administrative review" of the park district's "legislative authority" to dispose of land it no longer deemed useful.
But Gillis rejected the argument, saying the statute clearly puts authority for the sale of parkland in the court's hands and requires the judge to determine whether or not the sale is in the public interest. She then ordered the park district to respond to LGFP's outstanding discovery requests within 28 days.
Gillis also rebuffed Shapiro's contention that the hearing should be expedited, so as not to jeopardize the proposed sale.
"The statute does not anticipate that the park district is in the position of having a buyer," Gillis said. "I know you have a buyer. I don’t want to delay that, but I want to make sure that everyone's rights are protected."
Avoiding a lengthy and costly hearing should serve as an incentive for both sides to reach a settlement now, Gillis said.
Following the closed-session talks, Gillis sat informally on one of the courtroom tables reserved for attorneys as everyone gathered around her. She held in one hand a map drawing provided to her by the park district that showed Gordon Park and the adjacent Y property.
Pointing to vacated Shawmut Ave, which would be restored under the development plan approved last year by the La Grange village board of trustees, Gillis asked if LGFP's members could accept the road if it was determined that route was necessary to provide timely access for police, fire and paramedics responding to an emergency at the park during a sporting event. The judge said the concern was on her mind as a friend's husband had been stricken with a heart attack recently at a park in another community. The husband survived in part because of a fast response by paramedics.
Tom Beyer, an attorney for LGFP, said that many in the group were adamantly opposed to restoring the roadway, calling it a "deal breaker." He also noted that Aaronson, who by this time had left the courtroom to catch a flight back to his home in Atlanta, had said the roadway was no longer needed for his downsized project.
There appeared to be agreement on both sides that the village strongly wanted to see Shawmut Ave restored, but no one seemed certain who in the village administration was calling the shots regarding the roadway.
Like ARP, the village is not a party to the litigation but is a pivotal player in any settlement scenario. No representative of the village has attended any of the petition hearings.
Gillis noted that the park district had offered to convert into green space the parking lot it had acquired from the village in exchange for vacated Shawmut Ave. Would that not compensate for the green space lost if the road were restored? Gillis asked Beyer.
Beyer said the group's main concern regarding a restored Shawmut Ave is that it might leave the door open for the park district to attempt to sell the larger park parcel to another developer at a later date. That is why the group sought assurances from the park district that the parkland be protected in perpetuity.
Gillis said the she would not attempt to restrict future park districts from taking action, if necessary and appropriate, to sell parkland.
Mary Ellen Penicook, a park district commissioner, asked if preparing a land-use design for the parcel would address some of the group's concerns.
Shapiro said the parcel withdrawn from the sale would be joined to the rest of Gordon Park by a lighted walkway" to be built around the park perimeter as part of the planned improvements.
When pressed, Beyer said that he and several members of LGFP at this point simply did not trust the park district and the village to make good on any promises without a legally binding document.
Gillis encouraged all involved to make every effort to reach an agreement before the December hearing.
"Everybody needs to think about what they need to give up in order to reach a settlement," the judge said.
Rob Bush, general counsel to the park district, was the one who suggested the impromptu talks as the scheduled hearing on the discovery motion was ending. He said later the talks were meaningful if not conclusive.
“They're like chicken soup,” Bush said. “I figured they couldn’t hurt.”