By Warren James and Jerry James. While it is obvious to developers that the entitlement process has become increasingly more difficult, it may not be so obvious to municipalities and community groups that they can achieve greater good by being more collaborative and less combative. We have three recent examples that illustrate how various community responses to development proposals resulted in very different outcomes. By sharing these examples, we hope other builders and communities will consider the benefits of taking a more collaborative approach to land development.

The three sites we will discuss are all in the Chicago area and they are -- by all measure -- high-profile development sites in well established suburbs that are known for high-end housing. In each of the following instances, the approach, response, and outcome have been quite different.

Joined Forces

In the first instance there was a 30-acre parcel of undeveloped land that we had under contract. We actually joined forces with the local school district and park district to propose a rezoning that would allow for luxury, empty-nester housing. While the existing zoning called for single family homes on 1-acre lots, the community was interested in preserving open space and the park district and school districts in creating additional athletic fields.

We met with a certain amount of skepticism that always accompanies a change in zoning, but ultimately, the community saw the benefits. We obtained the necessary rezoning to develop 53 homes designed to appeal to the empty-nester, including 26 cluster single-family units and 27 townhomes on 18 acres, while preserving 10 acres of open space that was sold to the school and park districts to provide three athletic fields and a tot lot. Finally, we donated two acres of wetlands that serves as a buffer between the two adjacent uses. All this was accomplished with minimal acrimony.

There must be a certain level of trust between the parties as well as mutual interest in order to entertain such a close working relationship. Often times the common thread is concern over school impact and a need for empty-nester housing. We've been promoting the positive fiscal benefits of empty-nester housing to municipalities, as it typically has a positive impact on the local schools and municipalities. It's very clear that the cooperation of the school and park districts was pivotal in securing the necessary zoning.

Wrestling Match

The next instance involves a 20-acre parcel in a well-respected community known for its excellent schools and convenient location to downtown and Lake Michigan. The site was owned by a local university, which operated a satellite facility in an existing structure on the site. The 80-year-old structure was originally constructed by a religious order and later converted to its current use. While the building and related parking occupies about five acres, the majority of the site was vacant and wooded, and had been enjoyed by the surrounding single-family homes for passive recreation for many years.

Photo: David Joel

Teamed up: In land development practices, brothers Warren and Jerry James say a collaborative approach may be the answer.

Unfortunately, the university was losing money operating in the old structure and decided to sell. Due to the ongoing losses, the university moved quickly and unlike the first instance, there was little time to form alliances. Many developers pursued the opportunity and while we were selected and entered into a purchase agreement, local citizens banded together to encourage the village to slow the process down and change the course of the development. We faced a coalition of interest groups. Some wanted open space. Some wanted senior housing. Some wanted to save the grand old structure. We went in with the attitude that "we'll try to save the structure through adaptive reuse." As we got further into the process, we realized it was economically unfeasible. The plan we presented was for 37 single-family homes on larger lots than required under the existing zoning. We tried to work with the community, offering compromise solutions, but they rejected the offers, seeking instead to acquire the entire property.

By a surprising margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, the citizens passed the referendum, authorizing up to $25 million to acquire the 17-acre site. The municipality acquired the property (including the $2 million of state funds to buy the equivalent of 2 acres of land for open space). Now, more than a year after the referendum, the use of the property is still undecided as various competing interest groups wrestle with the cost to preserve the building and how best to develop the site. Ultimately, we believe that had the community adopted something other than a winner-take-all approach, we could have come up with a satisfactory solution that would have resulted in a far less costly proposition to the taxpayers while achieving a reasonable balance between private and public use of the land.

Community Campaign

In the third instance, we acquired a 24-acre piece of property in an affluent community in the Chicago suburbs. The site was largely vacant due to its institutional use for the past 50 years. While the existing zoning permits single-family homes on one-half-acre lots, more than a thousand such homes have been built within the community during the past decade through "tear-downs".

Our proposal to develop empty-nester housing was welcomed by many as a means of providing a much needed form of housing within the community without placing further burden on the local schools. Unfortunately, our proposal was also met by a vocal opposition group who orchestrated a campaign including a petition drive, yard signs, and multiple full-page ads in the local newspaper. The opposition succeeded in mischaracterizing our proposal and ultimately defeating the rezoning effort. We are proceeding to develop the site in a manner that is permissible under the existing zoning, but not necessarily in keeping with what either we or our opposition view as the best possible use of the land.

Here again is our point: Were there a more rational approach in any of these instances, middle ground might be found. Unfortunately, all too often the result is a lot of wasted time and resources on both sides. We at Edward R. James Partners like to see people take the rhetoric down a notch and look practically at a more collaborative approach to land use decisions.