Church parking lot issue remains unresolved

By on January 10, 2013

by Cheryl Borrowdale
ELBURN—A parking shortage in downtown Elburn has plagued local businesses and customers since the closure of the Community Congregational Church’s (CCC) 40-space lot on the corner of Shannon and Main streets, and there’s no solution in sight.

The lot, which is owned by the church, was closed last April and put up for sale after being used by the public to park downtown for over 15 years. Nine months later, despite extensive and sometimes acrimonious debate, little progress has been made.

Area businesses have not been able to purchase the lot, and the village has decided not to buy it. Elburn Village President Dave Anderson said that the issue had been so thoroughly canvassed over the past year that there was little left to discuss.

“We represent the taxpayers, and the taxpayers are not going to purchase that lot,” he said. “If we had lots and lots of money, possibly we would be looking at more places to park, but we don’t.”

The parking shortage has affected the bottom line at many downtown businesses. Some of the hardest hit have been downtown Elburn’s bars and restaurants, which attract larger numbers of customers in the evening.

Dick Theobald, owner of Paisano’s Pizza and Grill in downtown Elburn, said that the lack of parking in downtown was driving away potential customers. Paisano’s pick-up business has dropped off as fewer customers come in the door, many of them complaining about the lack of available parking, he said.

“It’s affecting us. It’s huge. It’s such an inconvenience,” Theobald said. “It’s hard to justify whether it’s actually affected the bottom line, but deliveries have been on the increase. In the long run, it costs more to have it delivered.”

Theobald said he understood the village’s position but disagreed with it.

“I don’t think the village is going to budge. They’re not going to buy it. It’s a really tough call,” he said. “I know things are tough, and it’s hard to justify. But in the long run, what hurts the downtown businesses also hurts the village. It’s kind of critical in the long term, and I think it could affect things like tax revenue. If we’re not doing as well as we could, the city isn’t doing as well as it could. In the long run, it affects everybody.”

Joe Smitherman of American Family Insurance said his customers have had to resort to parking in the back, behind the former Elburn Herald office, and that many have complained.

At Ream’s Elburn Market, located just across from the parking lot, business has been less affected. Though Ream’s has relatively few parking spaces of its own, they turn over every 10-15 minutes, which makes it easier to find a space, owner Randy Ream said.

Ream offered to buy the lot from the CCC—the only offer the church has received thus far—last November. Though the church accepted the offer, Ream ultimately withdrew it when he realized he faced zoning issues that increased the expense and the hassle while also restricting his use of the lot.

“I tried to buy it, but the city has a lot of restrictions and regulations, and I’m not really prepared to buy it with those restrictions,” Ream said. “I would have loved to have bought it and put up a nice lit sign.”

Ream wanted to continue using the lot as parking for his customers and for other downtown businesses, yet because the property is zoned B1 and not approved for use as a parking lot, he would have to go through the village’s rezoning process, he said.

The process would require a new owner to apply to the village for a variance to use it as a parking lot, which would have to be passed by the Village Board in an open public meeting, said Elburn Building Commissioner Tom Brennan. To do so, the purchaser would have to put $1,500 into an escrow account to pay for the village attorney’s time, as well as for the cost of reports from outside contractors and engineers.

Ream said that he didn’t have the time to handle rezoning the property during the busy holiday shopping season and that the rezoning would require him to make costly improvements to the lot, such as curbs and drainage.

He also wanted to put up an LED sign to advertise his business on the lot, but because the village has named downtown Elburn a historic sign district, the sizes and types of signs that businesses can use are restricted.

“I really see a big lack of signs in Elburn, especially in the historic sign district,” Ream said. “You look at what Bob Jass has put up—a huge sign, just south of us. I don’t know why we can’t put signs up here. A business without signs is a business without business. Elburn has always wanted some kind of historic district down here, but I don’t think it’s big enough to have a historic district.”

Anderson said that the village’s regulations are typical of any municipality.

“We have our zoning regulations and rules, and as such, depending on what the proposed use is, you have to go through those regulations. If there are variances required, we’d have to have hearings on it. That’s not unusual, no matter what municipality you’re in. In all honesty, none of this is new. It’s not a case where all of a sudden something new has reared its head,” he said.

Though Elburn has been trying to preserve the historic look of the downtown, he said that the board would be willing to consider granting a variance for signs if it would help move the parking issue along.

“I think, in all honesty, this board would be open to anything to see what could be done,” Anderson said.

A group of business owners led by Kevin Schmidt, owner of Schmidt’s Towne Tap, have discussed banding together to buy the lot, but Ream said that the group didn’t have the money. Several business owners expressed frustration that the lot hadn’t remained open while it was for sale or that a leasing agreement hadn’t been reached.

“I don’t know why (the church) can’t negotiate something with the businesses. They could continue to keep it for sale and, in the meantime, keep the lot open,” Theobald said. “If there’s something we could negotiate, I’m more than willing to pay something.”

Yet, keeping the lot open wasn’t an option for the CCC, church moderator Sharon Lackey said, because of maintenance costs and potential liability issues.

“We decided to close it because the Realtor told us that it would help us sell it, and we had some concerns with safety, as well, because in the wintertime the snow and ice make it a skating rink,” Lackey said.

She said that the CCC had repeatedly asked the village and area businesses for help maintaining and financing the lot, but that no one offered until after the lot was closed.

“We had asked a couple years ago for some assistance maintaining the lot, but we didn’t receive any response. (Since the lot closed,) I’ve heard people say that they would be willing to help. I got a phone call from someone saying that they would bring a load of gravel, but I’m not sure that gravel would make much difference,” Lackey said.

Lackey added that the church had looked into leasing the parking lot to area businesses or potentially putting up parking meters to raise revenue, but that doing so would have put the church’s non-profit status at risk.

“The IRS doesn’t see providing public parking as a proper activity for churches, either, so if we were to do that, we would have to start paying taxes on the property and we would lose our tax-exempt status,” Lackey said. “I know there are some people who think we ought to be providing free parking for the businesses. We would rather be doing things like helping the food pantry, and we would like to serve the community by helping people who need help. We don’t really see providing public parking as something that’s a mission for the church. There are some people in the community who are upset with us, and we feel badly about that, but we are trying to serve the community as a church.”

Though the CCC originally was asking $250,000 for the lot, they have reduced the asking price to $199,900.

Lackey said that the church no longer needs the parking and would like to sell the lot in order to raise enough money for a new elevator. The church has several parishioners who cannot climb the stairs to the church’s sanctuary, and although the church has an elevator that was built by Chuck Conley over 30 years ago, changes in Illinois law have forced them to stop using it.

“We had to shut it down, and there’s no way to get into the sanctuary without using stairs one way or another,” Lackey said. “A commercial elevator is a large expense. We were hoping we could sell the parking lot and get an elevator so that people can get into the sanctuary.”

Dave Royer, a CCC member who has been looking into the issue, said that installing a new elevator that meets ADA requirements will cost the church about $100,000, in addition to the cost of required annual hydraulic checks and biannual inspections.

“We looked into a chair lift, but we cannot use one because we don’t have the clearance required,” he said. “And Bruce Conley pointed out to us that some people would rather crawl up on their hands and knees than be embarrassed by having to use a chair lift. The church’s responsibility is to the church, not to provide free parking to local businesses.”

Ream said the parking issue should ultimately be dealt with by the village rather than by private business owners or the church.

“If an individual buys it, they do have control over it, but I know a lot of customers from Napa Auto and the Kountry Kettle and the bars will be there,” he said. “You’ll be supplying parking for the downtown area. Isn’t that the role of the village? You’d have to put in curbs and do snow plowing. Batavia supplies town parking. Geneva supplies town parking. Elburn should supply town parking.”

Anderson disagreed, saying that the village provides on-street parking already, and if businesses needed more, they ought to provide it.

“If you’re going to open a business, it’s your responsibility to provide parking for that business. That’s not just Elburn, it’s everywhere,” he said. “In downtown Geneva, basically, the only lots that they have that the city owns are the ones by the train station. They have the on-street parking obviously, but everything else downtown are privately owned lots.”

Anderson pointed out that the village improved its parking lot on the corner of First and North streets last summer, adding curbstops and sidewalks, expanding the number of spaces and adding handicapped spots. The village also provides 15-minute on-street parking by Paisano’s so that pickup customers “don’t have to drive all over the place,” he said.

Smitherman said that it was time for the parties to come together and compromise.

“I understand where the church is coming from, where it’s a designated church parking lot. But it would be nice if the community could band together, because right now there are parking issues,” Smitherman said. “There’s a throttle on how many people can be downtown at any given time now. Both parties are going to have to compromise to find a solution.”