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Slowik: Debate over rezoning, shuttering of truck terminal near Lemont was 'politicized,' operator says

Thursday, November 16, 2017
Daily Southtown
by Ted Slowik, Daily Southtown

Local officials are praising a Cook County decision to deny a rezoning request that would have allowed a trucking terminal to continue operating on land zoned for residential use.

They're calling it a victory for residents who opposed the project.

"We're extremely pleased," Lemont Township Supervisor Steven Rosendahl told me Thursday. "It was the right thing to do. Residents who were at risk because of this facility can enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners a little more."

Commissioner Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, expressed similar satisfaction in the County Board's decision Wednesday to reject the rezoning request.

"I was very pleased," Morrison told me. "We've been monitoring this for several months. We received a lot of phone calls and emails from residents."

Twelve of the 17 commissioners were in attendance Wednesday. Nine voted to deny the rezoning request and three voted "present."

I'm happy for residents who raised concerns about the operation at 16548 New Ave. in unincorporated Lemont. I think elected officials responded to their concerns and successfully represented citizens they serve.

"We appreciate the work of Commissioner Morrison and his staff," Rosendahl said. "They did a great job supporting us and representing their constituents."

I think the decision is also a victory for the rule of law. Petitioner James P. McMahon, 51, of LaGrange, is accused of illegally operating his business, J.P. McMahon Petro-Chem Transport Group, on the site without first obtaining proper zoning.

The Cook County state's attorney cited McMahon for the alleged violation but suspended enforcement pending resolution of the rezoning request. McMahon had noted that while he sought rezoning county authorities had granted him a business license and deemed him eligible for a "6b" economic development incentive.

Once the County Board settled the zoning question, Morrison told me he contacted the state's attorney's office and asked them to resume the case.

The state's attorney's office provided me with a copy of a motion filed Thursday seeking an injunction that would require McMahon to cease operating out of temporary trailers on the site. A hearing on the motion is set for Tuesday.

"The complaint seeks to permanently enjoin defendant from violating the Building Code and the Zoning Ordinance," the motion states. "Given the zoning application was denied, the best way to prohibit defendant from violating the Building Code and the Zoning Ordinance is for defendant to cease its operations on the subject property."

Morrison pointed to a portion of the motion that noted the petitioner unsuccessfully sought to delay Wednesday's vote on the rezoning request.

"Preceding the vote, the commissioners voted to deny a motion to defer the matter, with many of the commissioners noting the burden to the residents in the area with respect to the imposition on their health and safety, and the noise generated by the activities on the subject property that adversely affected the use and enjoyment of the residents' properties," the state's attorney's notion stated.

Like I said, I applaud how citizens were well-represented in this case and that authorities will enforce laws to ensure everyone plays by the rules. However, I thought the petitioner raised some valid points to support his request. I think some aspects of the case merit additional consideration.

One was McMahon's point that the village of Lemont initially supported his proposal, and that the village's long-range plan calls for commercial and industrial uses along New Avenue where his property is located.

I'm not saying that excuses him for allegedly setting up shop without first going through the necessary steps to secure proper zoning. I'm saying his operation is consistent with uses that planners considered appropriate for the site.

Let me be clear: I believe the rezoning process is the proper forum for developers to respond to concerns raised by neighbors and government officials. When the process works as it should, officials review compliance and weigh the merits of a proposal against the negatives.

They deliberate the pros and cons and then vote up or down. If a petitioner doesn't follow proper procedures, then I agree authorities should punish scofflaws.

I visited the site along New Avenue and met with McMahon a couple weeks ago. He invited me into his office and answered all my questions. I noted there was one home located next door to his operation. I spoke with the resident at the time and shared his concerns in a story about the dispute.

McMahon and I spoke by phone on Thursday.

"I'm disappointed beyond belief," he told me. "I think it got politicized."

I agree with McMahon's view that his operation is in a predominantly industrial area. His trucks pick up fuel from two big refineries a couple miles down the road and deliver it to gas stations throughout the Chicago area.

I was puzzled by some of the safety objections raised by residents and local officials. McMahon told me empty trucks are parked on the site during shift changes. He has a long track record of safely and successfully operating another business, McMahon Transport Group, with his brother, John.

I found it odd that John McMahon raised concerns about the safety of his brother's business, since he's involved in the same type of operation a few miles down the road along New Avenue in Lockport.

"John McMahon … testified that the proposed business presents a safety hazard that cannot be discounted that is if the tankers blow up and is concerned for the safety," stated the record of an Oct. 18 zoning board hearing. John McMahon was identified as "owner of a competing business, former business partner, and brother of applicant."

John McMahon did not immediately respond to a message I left with an employee Thursday at McMahon Transport Group requesting comment.

I think during the course of the rezoning process, opponents unfairly depicted Jim McMahon's attitudes about safety.

"What upset me the most was the tone that I was a reckless business person who didn't care about safety when it's paramount to my business, for neighbors and everyone around us," McMahon told me.

His company's drivers meet strict standards to serve as licensed hazardous materials haulers, he told me. His trucks haul a lot of biodiesel, which is much less flammable than regular diesel.

I view McMahon's enterprise as an economic development opportunity that would create good-paying jobs. I told him I thought he valued safety and that in my opinion, some of the concerns raised by opponents seemed exaggerated. I also told him I thought his business was an appropriate use for that area.

However, I said I respect the rule of law and believe businesses should follow rules for building and zoning codes.

"We made mistakes," he told me.

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