Land Owners May Pursue Lawsuit Alleging Chicago Landmark Ordinance Violates Illinois Constitution, First District Rules

In a decision with wide-reaching implications for Chicago land owners and developers, the First District Court of Appeal found March 6 that at least part of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance was unconstitutionally vague. Hanna v. City of Chicago, No. 1-07-3548 (Ill. 1st Dist. March 6, 2009) is an Illinois real estate lawsuit alleging that the ordinance was overly vague, improperly delegated the city’s legislative authority and violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Illinois Constitution.

Plaintiff Albert Hanna owned property in Chicago’s Arlington Deming neighborhood, and plaintiff Carol Mrowka owned property in the East Village neighborhood. Both had been approved as Landmark Districts, which means that property owners in those areas must get approval from the Commission of Chicago Landmarks for any alteration, construction, demolition or other work on their property. Land owners may contest the designation at a hearing. The plaintiffs sued the City of Chicago, the Commission and several city officials to overturn the ordinance, which authorizes the designations.

Count I of the complaint alleges that the ordinance is so vague that citizens have no way to tell how they should behave to comply with it. Counts II and III allege that the ordinance violates provisions of the Illinois Constitution reserving legislative power to the city council and state legislature. Counts V through XX allege that the ordinance violates the constitution’s equal protection clause and substantive due process clause. In trial court, the city moved to dismiss the multiple counts of their complaint for failure to state a claim. The trial court granted the motion as to counts I through III and V through XX. The plaintiffs now appeal that decision.

The First District Court of Appeal started with the vagueness allegation. The plaintiffs alleged that numerous parts of the ordinance are so vague that ordinary people must guess at their meaning. The court agreed, saying words like “value,” “important,” “significant” and “unique” were so broad that an ordinary person could not predict which areas might be designated as landmarks or even which people might sit on the Commission. By itself, this is enough to state a cause of action, so the court reversed the dismissal of Count I.

The court next turned to Counts II and III, which alleged that the authority granted to the Commission is impermissible under the state constitution. Again, the First District agreed. The city argued that the Commission is an advisory body only because the City Council has a final vote on whether to adopt the Commission’s recommendations. However, the court said, if the city takes no action, those recommendations become law after one year. For that reason, the Commission is really a declaratory body with authority that is improper under the Illinois Constitution, the court found. And even if that were not true, the court wrote, its standards might still be impermissibly vague. Again, this is sufficient to state a cause of action, the court wrote.

On the remaining counts, V through XX, the First District declined to make a ruling until the trial court can make a finding on whether the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. If it so finds, the appeals court wrote, the issues of whether the ordinance violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the state constitution are moot. Thus, it reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded it for a trial.

The Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, Ill,, real-estate litigation law firm of Lubin Austermuehle represents clients throughout the Chicago area including in Naperville, Aurora, Wheaton, Oak Brook and Highland Park in disputes over both residential and commercial real estate. Our Chicago real estate trial attorneys have handled lease disputes and breach of contract claims, zoning problems, construction disputes and many other real estate matters. In addition to Illinois state law matters, our Midwest real estate trial lawyers represent people in federal court and in state courts in Indiana and Wisconsin. If you’re involved in a real estate lawsuit and you’re looking for experienced representation, Lubin Austermuehle can help. To set up a free consultation, please contact us online or call 630-333-0333 today.

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