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Lightfoot’s air pollution ordinance stuck in City Council committee

After nearly an hour of complaints from both sides, Zoning Committee Chairman Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) ordered the mayor’s ordinance held in committee for a major rewrite.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer cited an asphalt plant that opened directly across from McKinley Park two years ago as an example of an industrial zoning issue that would get more public scrutiny under the mayor’s proposed ordinance.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer, cited an asphalt plant that opened directly across from McKinley Park two years ago as an example of an industrial zoning issue that would get more public scrutiny under the mayor’s proposed ordinance.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to change the city’s zoning laws to create additional regulatory hurdles for industrial polluters who want to set up shop near homes, schools and parks got stuck in a City Council committee Tuesday amid opposition from both sides.

Alds. Anthony Beale (9th), Ray Lopez (15th), Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) argued that developers need and deserve more freedom than the mayor’s ordinance provides.

“I understand the gist of what we’re trying to accomplish … and what we all want to see: Better quality of life in the city. That’s the environment. The air quality. We all want to work together to improve that,” Daley Thompson said.

“However, there are certain aspects of this ordinance that, I believe, will hurt the quality of life in the city by moving jobs outside the city, by limiting our abilities in the city.”

The nephew of one Mayor Daley and the grandson of another, Daley Thompson pointed to the painstaking process that prompted the city to create planned manufacturing districts to “provide a buffer” between industrial and residential uses.

“That gave the residents a comfort that industrial was gonna be in a specific area. It gave the industrial also the certainty and assurance that they need from a business perspective. Knowing that, if they bought a piece of property to invest, they would be able to operate,” Daley Thompson said.

An attorney specializing in zoning, Daley Thompson noted that industrial uses are “the hottest market in Chicago” right now.

“To create a special use will only delay the process, create uncertainty and thus, deter developers and industrial users from coming in,” he said.

“We have a lot of buildings in the Stockyards industrial planned manufacturing district that have multi-tenant properties. Some of these are smaller users. A couple thousands square feet. They would have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals and obtain a special use to go operate their small wholesale business. That’s not good for Chicago. That’s not good for business.”

Reilly shared Daley Thompson’s concerns.

He called the mayor’s ordinance “well-intended.” But he said, “I’m concerned it is also transferring a tremendous amount of local control and local stakeholder input and feedback to bureaucrats who aren’t accountable to our communities directly like aldermen are.”

Reilly said he has “some really disappointing experiences” with the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board has rendered decisions that “impact communities in pretty substantial ways, despite overwhelming opposition” from area residents, the local alderman and police commander, he said.

“We should spend some more time with this ordinance to make sure we get it right and it isn’t overly broad. Doesn’t hand over even more control to appointed bureaucrats when that particular body has been issuing rulings over strenuous objections from impacted communities,” Reilly said.

Beale, one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critics, said he was “deeply troubled” by the mayor’s ordinance in light of what he called “the problems” he is already having getting city planners and department heads to sign off on job-creating projects in his Far South Side ward.

“Here we are going to give more authority to the departments to go totally against the wishes and the desires of us in our community,” Beale said.

“Colleagues, what are we doing? What are we doing when we have department heads that won’t listen to us? And here we are giving more authority to those same people who don’t listen to us. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Alds. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and Maria Hadden (49th) argued that the ordinance doesn’t go nearly far enough. Sigcho-Lopez was particularly concerned about turning decision-making over to mayoral appointees on the Zoning Board of Appeals.

After nearly an hour of complaints, Zoning Committee Chairman Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) ordered the ordinance held in committee for a major re-write.

Tunney said it’s clear that Lightfoot’s ordinance “needs more work.” He advised top mayoral aides to “spend more time on both sides of aisles.”

But at the end of a daylong meeting, Tunney adjourned the Zoning Committee until 9 a.m. Wednesday. That will give him another chance to pass the mayor’s ordinance out of committee — when fewer will be in attendance — before the regularly scheduled City Council meeting.

In July, Lightfoot said the ordinance was a first step toward an “air quality agenda” that addresses “the unequal burden of pollution that communities of color on our city’s South and West Sides face.”

Last month, Angela Tovar, Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer, cited an asphalt plant that opened directly across from McKinley Park two years ago as an example of an industrial zoning issue that would get more public scrutiny under the mayor’s proposed ordinance. The asphalt plant is “exactly the type of development we had in mind when we put this ordinance together,” Tovar said.

It’s unclear, however, that such an ordinance would have any bearing on another high-profile environmental controversy: General Iron’s move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), a co-sponsor of the mayor’s proposed ordinance, said that the protections would not have stopped Hilco’s disastrous demolition of a former coal-fired power plant in his Little Village ward Easter weekend.

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, has been critical of the mayor’s proposal because it doesn’t address the boom in warehouses, which can potentially bring hundreds of diesel-fueled trucks into neighborhoods daily, adding to air pollution and creating safety issues. She said City Hall didn’t reach out to community groups to help draft an ordinance that had more stringent requirements.

“The mayor’s office doesn’t want to negotiate,” Wasserman said after the committee meeting. “It takes her arrogance to a whole new level.”

Rodriguez said, “I’m disappointed we didn’t take a step forward today but I’m hopeful we can in the near future. I think the mayor’s office needs to double down, working with community groups to articulate the needs and the issues.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.