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Arlington Heights Dangles Zoning Carrot to Lure Chicago Bears

Zoning and land use regulations have become one of the most powerful ways of controlling what goes on in a community or even on a specific piece of property. In many Illinois municipalities, planning commissions and zoning boards act as gatekeepers with significant power over who or what can go where. If your business or land use is undesirable, they can make it very difficult for you to find space to operate. But if you own one of the NFL’s most storied franchises and are looking for a new place to plop a prodigious football stadium, they may just do everything in their power to remove any zoning hurdles which could otherwise discourage your relocation.

Since 1971, the Chicago Bears have played their games at Soldier Field along Chicago’s lakefront. But the stadium, which is actually owned by the Chicago Park District, is the oldest in the NFL, relatively small, inaccessible, and unattractive. Both the franchise’s value and the fan experience would be well-served by a shiny new, team-owned stadium. But Chicago proper is largely built out and landlocked, so the Bears are looking elsewhere.

Enter the Village of Arlington Heights and the 326-acre site of Arlington Park—an iconic horse track owned by Churchhill Downs, Inc. The site offers the Bears the space they need should the team wish to chart a new course, one that is not so dependent on the Chicago Park District or subject to Chicago politics. In response to the news that the Bears had made an offer on the site,  Chicago’s Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, decided to take a “stick” approach to discourage the team from relocating. In a public statement, she reminded the team of the terms of its lease and suggested the team would be better served focusing on beating their rivals, the Green Bay Packers.

In contrast, the Village of Arlington Heights quickly decided to take a “carrot” approach to lure the Bears away from their lakefront location. On June 21, 2021, just days after it was confirmed that the Bears had put a bid in to purchase Arlington Park, the Village Board approved new zoning regulations—a zoning overlay district which green lights the use of the property as a football stadium. Time will tell whether Arlington Heights’ zoning carrot will be enough to convince the Bears to move or whether the team will ultimately cave to the pressure from Chicago politicians to keep the team in the City.

For those of us who do not own an NFL team, we are probably going to experience a lot more difficulty jumping through zoning hoops and obtaining permits to relocate our businesses. These days, almost every kind of land use or building requires some form of discretionary zoning approval, and many businesses and institutions are discovering that zoning and land use regulations are becoming a major hurdle to what they want to accomplish. While the Bears may expect the red-carpet treatment, other businesses and institutions can expect to have to hire an attorney to help them navigate the increasingly complex world of Illinois zoning and land use and zoning regulations.

If you need help navigating zoning and land use regulations in Illinois, please contact us. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have represented property owners across Illinois and have handled a variety of complex zoning and land use issues.

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