When it comes to zoning in Chicago, there are many unwritten rules and policies. As many zoning applicants have learned the hard way, one unwritten policy may be more important to the success or failure of any zoning or land use application than all the written rules in Chicago’s Zoning Ordinance. This unwritten policy has variously been referred to as “aldermanic prerogative,” “aldermanic privilege,” or “aldermanic courtesy.”
In short, aldermanic prerogative refers to the discretionary authority aldermen have over zoning and land use matters in their wards. Or in even shorter terms, aldermen control development. A thumb up or thumb down from an alderman can mean the all the difference to even the most code-compliant zoning application.
As a result of all that authority vested in the aldermen, it should come as no surprise that zoning decisions can often come down to pure politics. And as many have chronicled, there is a long and sordid history of Chicago aldermen abusing their privilege when it comes to zoning and land use matters. I have personally seen it abused to thwart a client’s effort to establish a community center in a poor area on Chicago’s south side. Recently, allegations concerning the abuse of aldermanic prerogative have been at the center of federal indictments of some major Illinois and Chicago politicians.
While the Mayor has promised to do what she can do bring an end to aldermanic prerogative, there is no sign the aldermen will vote to give their authority up. Many defend aldermanic prerogative as a way of ensuring the constituents have a voice in land use decisions affecting their ward—a voice which comes through their elected alderman.
In any event, aldermanic prerogative is likely to remain a central part of the zoning and land use approval process in Chicago. Zoning applicants should not only be aware of aldermanic prerogative but should work to develop positive relationships with the alderman and neighboring property owners in their ward. Developing good relationships in your community is generally sound advice anyways, but in Chicago it is of particular importance.
If you need help with a zoning or land use matter in Illinois, please give us a call at 815-986-8050.