To the outsider, it looks as though Wilmette--with its spacious parks and Victorian homes with rolling lawns--is as genteel and quiet as it was at the turn of the century.
But take a closer look, read the local paper, and you'll see that the residents of this North Shore community are engaged in a furious debate over their future. The issue is whether or not the village should allow people who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled to live together in groups. The specific question is if it should soften its rock-solid zoning code and allow group homes and greater commercial development.
The debate seized Wilmette about six months ago, drawing hundreds of residents to often raucous public hearings, and inspiring dozens of articles, editorials, and letters to the editor in the Wilmette Life. No solution appears to be in sight. Earlier this month, residents voted to halt any decision on the matter until a new village board of trustees is selected, which promises to produce an even more emotional discussion on the matter during municipal election, next spring.
On one side of the issue is the Wilmette Neighbors Association, a newly sprouted organization dedicated to the proposition that the proposed zoning changes will lead to rampant "urbanization," flooding the village with unwanted social service agencies and densely packed high rises.
"I view Wilmette not so much as a suburb, but a small town," says Barbara Baran, a zoning lawyer allied with the association. "I used to live in the city. I loved its diversity; there's a place for that. But there's a place for Wilmette, too. You should see it here on Memorial Day; it's like a Frank Capra film. You lose that if you have more people. Because with more people you have anonymity. These proposed zoning changes miss the boat about how the community views itself."
On the other side is a coalition that includes many of Wilmette's oldest civic, good-government, and open-housing leaders. The association, they maintain, has distorted the issue, exploiting fear, intolerance, and greed.
"People say, 'Don't change Wilmette,' but Wilmette has changed, and for the better," says Clarice Stetter, cochairman of the Wilmette Coalition for Group Homes, and a longtime resident who is married to the former school-board president. "I can remember when there was religious intolerance in Wilmette, when Jews and Catholics couldn't live in certain neighborhoods. That isn't true anymore. We have a diverse community. I remember all the resistance to senior-citizen housing. A lot of the same arguments were raised. People said we don't need it. It will bring in outsiders. It will lower property values. None of this was true."
To a Chicagoan, the passion surrounding the issue is difficult to understand. Nestled between an Evanston and Winnetka, Wilmette shows no signs of overgrowth or economic decay. Its streets, parks, and alleys are immaculately groomed, and there are no slums anywhere near its borders. Why then the fuss?
Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of suburban exclusivity. Rigid zoning laws and high real estate prices have long excluded the weak, the disabled, and especially the poor from suburbs like Wilmette. In their defense, the residents have never blatantly said, "Keep blacks and poor people out." Wilmette never threatened to stone Martin Luther King (as residents in Cicero threatened to do 20 years ago). On the contrary, they held memorial services for King after his death.
Still, there is no question that Wilmette remains a bastion of North Shore exclusivity: about 95 percent of its residents are white; 85 percent of its homes are occupied by their owners; the median annual income is close to $50,000; few homes sell for less than $200,000. Undoubtedly, many residents live in Wilmette precisely because its exclusivity enables them to leave the problems of the city far behind.
"I think there's a paranoia in this community about change, a fear of people who are different," says Marianne Rosen, executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, which backs the zoning changes. "You hear that in a lot of the comments of people who say, 'Well, I worked hard to make it here, and I don't want anybody or anything coming in to take it away."
The current controversy is rooted in efforts by the board of trustees to update the village's "comprehensive plan."
"The comprehensive plan is more or less an advisory guide for future development," says Stetter. "It does not have any teeth to it. The teeth come from the zoning laws, which are adjusted from time to time in accordance with the plan."
In the early 1980s, the trustees held public hearings and solicited expert testimony about Wilmette's future. They then proposed zoning changes intended, among other things, to encourage economic development and group homes for the mentally disabled.
"We have disabled Wilmette residents who are a part of this community," Tina Herpe, a Wilmette resident, wrote in a letter to the Wilmette Life. "They are the developmentally disabled (a diagnostic category that includes the mentally retarded and related disorders) who have graduated from our special education programs. They are the New Trier graduates who suffered nervous breakdowns in college and are trying to get back on their feet. [They] are already our neighbors. They deserve our compassion, not rejection."
"We discovered that a lot of these people are living at home with their parents," says Stetter. "But what happens when the parents get too old to provide for them? Or what happens when the parents die?"
Stetter likens their dilemma to the one faced by Wilmette's senior citizens. In the 1970s, village trustees relaxed zoning restrictions against multiunit buildings, after noting the growing number of retired residents who could not maintain their homes or afford property taxes. Since then three federally subsidized senior citizen complexes have been built.
"Wilmette should be proud of its senior citizen housing," says Rosen. "I should add that in every case, [these buildings] were built in the face of heated opposition. You would hear people use code phrases like, 'They're going to bring in Cabrini-Green.'"
So safeguards were established. The projects only take seniors who live in Wilmette, who once lived there, or who have children who live there now. "The opposition said these buildings are not needed, that they'll just attract 'outsiders,'" says Rosen. "Well, guess what? There's a waiting list to get into these buildings."
In the case of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, a survey by village trustees showed at least 60 such residents in need of housing. The current zoning allows no more than three unrelated residents to live together in one unit. So the village board--as part of a larger repackaging of its zoning laws--proposed to amend that rule, allowing eight unrelated residents in homes in residential neighborhoods. These group homes, the trustees added, would be required to adhere to local regulations that would be determined later.
That was in the spring of 1988. Within a matter of weeks, opposition was in full force.
"This was a grass-roots effort that started here in my neighbor's kitchen," says Diana Cohen, the Wilmette Neighbors Association president. "My neighbor and I were talking, and one of us said, 'Did you see what I saw about zoning in the papers?' So we invited some people over to talk about it. We found that there were others who felt just like us. We all felt the trustees had gone too far. So we spread the word neighbor to neighbor; we called our friends; we sent out a mailing to 10,000 households, saying, 'Does this scare the devil out of you, like it scares the devil out of us?'"
Over 150 residents joined the association in those first few days, Cohen says (they currently have 700 dues-paying members). As they picked through some of the other proposed zoning changes, they grew more upset. There was the proposal to allow high-rise development at Edens Plaza and Plaza del Lago, the town's two shopping centers; the proposal to enable certain schools to be converted into multifamily housing; and the proposal that would have cut from 45 to 15 the number of days residents have to appeal land-use decisions made by village staff.
The more they read, the angrier they got. It was clear, they decided, that the village's leaders wanted to make Wilmette less like Frank Capra's America, and more like, well, Evanston, which has more apartments, social service agencies, and (though association members never publicly raise the issue of race) blacks than any other North Shore suburb.
How could this happen? they asked themselves. Why weren't they informed? What hidden motives might the village trustees have?
"They were shoving these changes down our throats as quietly as they could," says Sean Hegarty, chairman of the association. "We had enough."
The group decided to press for the referendum to postpone a decision until new trustees are elected. Within weeks, they had gathered enough signatures to put the referendum on the November 8 ballot.
"We decided that we do not want these trustees to work on zoning anymore," says Cohen. "They had their chance, and they blew it. Four of the seven seats are up in the April election, so we were asking that the current members of the board hold off on zoning changes until a new board was elected--a board elected by people who are aware of the issues. Because the way it was, no one in the community knew the issues."
Proponents of the zoning ordinance strongly disagree.
"Isn't that something? They [the association members] were involved in the issue for about a month, and suddenly they know more than all the people who have worked on it for years," says Stetter. "This process goes back to 1981. It's been the subject of public hearings, articles in the paper, and mailings by the village."
The battle lines drawn, both sides prepared for a series of public hearings that began in September, the first of which was attended by more than 700 people.
"At times, the three-hour hearing took on the appearance of The Morton Downey Jr. Show complete with hoots and hollers from the audience," Wilmette Life reporter Steve Ostrowski wrote about one meeting in September. "[One resident] told trustees his 12-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, lives in a group home in Wheaton. 'I feel that our daughter has a right to live in Wilmette,' [he] said. 'It makes me sad to think that the people of Wheaton have opened their arms to our daughter while the people of our community will not open their arms.'
"'You have a right to live in Wheaton, too,' came the retort from the audience."
"You just can't imagine how rude some people were at these hearings," says Stetter. "A lot of them were young people, who haven't really lived. They have a nice life here in Wilmette, and they can't imagine what it's like for someone whose life isn't so nice. They see someone who's mentally disabled, and they think, 'Why don't his parents just take care of him?' They haven't the experience to know that there are some things parents can't handle."
In the November election, over 9,000 residents voted yes on the referendum; it won by a margin of two to one.
"They call us bigots; well, what can I say? There are problems with that zoning ordinance; you can't pretend they don't exist by calling me names," says Baran. "It's heartrending to hear mothers and fathers testify about their handicapped children. It brought tears to my eyes. But that doesn't mean we should allow group homes 1,000 feet apart in residential neighborhoods."
"We have the capability right now to take care of our own," Hegarty adds. "The current zoning law allows group homes of up to three unrelated people. Some people say, 'Well, that's not enough to make a profit.' Hey, it's not my problem to see that these homes make a profit. Wilmette's been around for a long time, and so have mentally ill people. In the past, everyone has pretty much taken care of themselves. That's how it should be. If we pass this ordinance, we open up Pandora's box; we'll have people coming here to start group homes."
At the moment, association members say they have not decided how they will exercise their newfound muscle in April's election. They might endorse candidates, or some of their members may run themselves. In any case, they can expect a fight.
"I don't think people in Wilmette are against group homes," says Stetter. "People voted yes on the referendum for a lot of reasons, some having nothing to do with the group homes. A lot of the density questions with Edens Plaza and Plaza del Lago have been taken care of. People now are much more aware of the issues. I don't think Wilmette is the kind of community that is intolerant. If that were true, my husband and I wouldn't live here. We wouldn't raise our family here. I've always believed that there's more to a community than fine homes and property values--and I think we'll prove our case."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.