When residents of Irving Park got wind of the plans hip-hop label owner Rudy Acosta had to build a 42-foot-high castle on the vacant lot he owns overlooking the Kennedy Expressway, they went on the attack, castigating city officials and lawyers for failing to give them adequate notice. Now they're battling on a second front: in their efforts to kill the castle they've made provocative accusations against John Fritchey, a well-connected state representative who's threatening to sue them for defamation. "This has struck as raw a nerve with me as anything in my 41 years on earth," Fritchey says.
Back in 2002, Acosta asked the city to change the zoning on a vacant parcel of land he owned at 3716 N. Lawndale from R3 to R4, a less restrictive category. To steer his petition through the city he hired Fritchey, who in addition to being a state rep is a zoning lawyer married to the niece of 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chair of the City Council's zoning committee. Banks's nephew James, another prominent zoning lawyer, recently replaced Fritchey as Acosta's attorney.
Fritchey says he fulfilled the city's notification requirements for Acosta's zoning change, sending letters by certified mail to all owners of property within 250 feet of Acosta's lot and then filing an affidavit saying he'd done so. In April 2002, when the zoning committee held a hearing on the proposal, no one turned up to object. The alderman at the time, Mike Wojcik, supported the variance, which by itself is usually enough to assure passage. (Wojcik, now with the CTA, did not respond to requests for comment.) The committee recommended the zoning change, and in May the full council approved it.
Over two years passed, and Acosta still hadn't built anything on the lot. (Acosta, whose label the Legion has a distribution deal with Warner Music Group and has released an album by the influential west-side rap group Do or Die, also declined to comment for this story.) Then in January he asked the city's zoning board of appeals to approve another variance that would allow him to build from lot line to lot line. As required by law, the board sent a letter notifying residents of Acosta's new proposal. This time the street erupted.
"It's a neighborhood of yentas--people talk to each other," says Sharon Sears, who lives next to Acosta's lot. "When we got the notice for the variance we asked to see the plans. When we saw the plans we were horrified--absolutely horrified." Acosta was planning to build a four-story, 6,700-square-foot structure complete with parapets and the crest that serves as the logo for his label. "It's 16 feet taller than the other houses on the block--it dwarfs us," Sears says.
So why didn't neighbors react the first time around? They say they never saw the letters Fritchey says he sent. "We went around door-to-door asking people, Did you get a registered letter? And almost everyone said no," says Sears. All told, 34 out of 53 intended recipients of the letter say they failed to receive one.
One resident, Pat Clark, did get the letter, and she still has it. Dated February 4, 2002, it reads: "In accordance with the Amendment to the Zoning Code enacted by the City Council, Section 11.9-3.1 (Chapter 194A) Title 17, please be informed that . . . this firm will file an application for a change in zoning . . . in order to allow for the development of a single family residence."
Clark says she called Fritchey shortly after receiving the notice. "I'm a real pack rat," she says. "I still have the notes of our phone call." In her note she jotted, "Yard setback, single family home, [applicant] not a developer." Described that way the proposal triggered no alarms.
After the 2005 notice another resident, Dorene Jordan, called Fritchey to talk about the zoning change. By then three years had passed since the council approved the initial variance and Fritchey was no longer representing Acosta. Jordan says Fritchey told her he'd sent notification letters by certified mail. When she asked to see the return receipts, Jordan says, "he said he threw them out. He said, 'I can't be expected to keep records that long--I'd have to have extra files.' I said, 'Haven't you heard of microfiche?' I mean, it wasn't that long ago. I'm in the medical field, and if I give you a flu shot I have to keep your signature on file for 15 years."
As Jordan and her neighbors have learned, it's up to residents to be vigilant when they receive notification of a zoning change. The letters alone are of little use. They don't tell people they can register opposition or support at a hearing--they don't even say there will be a hearing. They offer only as much information as the notification law requires. The law didn't require Fritchey to specify exactly what Acosta intended to build on his lot.
"There's nothing in the statute to protect the home owner," says Jordan. "Unless your alderman lets you know of a proposal's specifics, you're on your own."
But it's one thing to complain about the inadequacies of the notification letters and another to suggest Fritchey did not mail them, as some residents have. Yes, Clark received a notice, they concede. But she lives a block or so away from Acosta's lot. They want to examine the receipts to see if any resident on the 3700 block of Lawndale--the people likely to yell the loudest about the castle--received notices. They contend the city should void the lot's zoning change unless Fritchey can prove he mailed notices to all property owners within 250 feet. "We would have packed the hearing to voice our opposition had we known about the castle," Sears says. "But we can't oppose something we don't know about."
On September 20 Sears, Jordan, and a third resident, Susan Ryan, laid out their case in a letter to Christopher Bushell, the executive director of the city's Department of Construction and Permits. "We believe that attorney John Fritchey," they wrote, "falsely swore in an affidavit that neighbors had been notified. Mr. Fritchey refused to offer proof, saying he threw out the returned signed receipts. This is the only proof on record that neighbors on that block had been notified." For good measure they accused the city of approving Acosta's zoning change out of deference to the Banks family's clout.
Fritchey is indignant. "I didn't sleep for three days because of this," he says. "If they want to say they're troubled by the number of neighbors who didn't get that notice, that's one thing. We can talk about the postal service not delivering the mail, or we can talk about the notification procedure in general. But they crossed a line. I work hard, real hard, to do a good job. This is unwarranted."
The residents, he says, may not have read the notices. They might not even have received them in the mail--but he mailed them, just as he stated in his affidavit. "They say there's one person who got the notice," he says. "Did I pick and choose who'll get the notice--I'll notify this neighbor, but I won't notify that one? I love their position: 'I didn't get it.' Oh, suddenly they can recall what letters they did or didn't get almost four years ago? Listen, I have offices filled with returned green cards--letters that were never delivered because the people didn't sign for them. It's not unusual at all for people not to respond to one of these notices. But if they don't like the zoning change they shouldn't blame me because they didn't pay attention to the notice."
Fritchey also disputes Jordan's account of their phone conversation. "I told her I had switched firms since I handled that case," says Fritchey. "I said, 'Look, I haven't worked at that firm in two and a half years. I don't have those records. I left those records at the old firm and I don't know if they kept them or if they threw them away.' That's different than saying I threw them away."
Finally, he resents any suggestion that he receives favorable treatment from the zoning committee or City Council because he's married to Alderman Banks's niece. "Alderman Banks recuses himself from everything I represent," says Fritchey. "My applications are pristine."
The residents' charges present Fritchey--who makes no secret of aspiring toward higher political office and has mulled a run for state treasurer--with a dilemma. "If I sue I look like a bully," he says. "If I don't I look like a felon." But he insists he'll go through with a suit if the letter's signers refuse to retract their accusations.
The residents say they have no intention of doing so. "I think he should stop threatening ordinary citizens and start looking for those receipts," Sears says. She and her neighbors are planning to petition for a temporary stop-work order before Acosta can do any more construction (excavation on the site started in November). "We need to act fast," she says. "But it's hard to find anyone who's willing to go up against Fritchey and Banks. This whole thing is taking on a life of its own. It's consuming. Fritchey's not the only one losing sleep."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.