John Cleave.

Evanston’s Land Use Commission voted 4-3 Wednesday night to uphold the determination of the city’s zoning administrator that the Connections for the Homeless operation at the Margarita Inn is consistent with the zoning code’s definition of a rooming house.

Because the commission requires a majority vote of its 10 members to make a decision, final action on whether the zoning administrator’s ruling should be affirmed will have to wait until the commission’s next meeting May 25 in hopes more commissioners will be present then to cast their votes on the issue.

Given the 4-3 split Wednesday night, it’s still possible the final vote could go either way.

Neighbors have complained for months that residents of the Margarita have adversely affected the quality of life in the neighborhood. But Connections has argued that the facility — opened to provide long-term shelter for the homeless during the pandemic — has been well run.

The challenge to the administrator’s decision was initially filed by Chris Dillow. After it was determined that he did not live close enough to the Margarita to be eligible to file the appeal, John Cleave, who lives within 500 feet of the property, joined the appeal.

Cleave told commissioners the zoning administrator’s decision appeared to be “an underhanded move to circumvent the discussion we should have” about the operation.

Dillow and Cleave argued that the Connections facility fit better with the “transitional shelter” definition in the zoning code.

But Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz said it didn’t fit the transition shelter definition — because of the short stays called for in the transitional shelter definition, when residents at the Margarita typically stay for nine or 10 months or more.

After extensive discussion of the ins and outs of various types of uses defined in the zoning code, most of the commissioner’s present at the meeting agreed that “rooming house” was the best fit.

Jeanne Lindwall.

But Commissioner Jeanne Lindwall said she believed the Connections facility was “not really a rooming house.”

“We need a specific definition for what this hybrid model is,” Lindwall added.

And Commissioner Kristine Westerberg said the scope of social services provided and the fact that Connections, rather than the tenants, pay rent to the building’s owner “seems to knock it out of the definition of rooming house.”

Commissioner Max Puchtel responded while none of the definitions available in the zoning code are a perfect fit, the commission’s role was to determine whether the zoning administrator’s decision was “arbitrary, ill considered or erroneous.”

“Given the choices available to the administrator, I think she picked the closest one that’s feasible,” Puchtel added.

Myrna Arevalo.

Commissioner Myrna Arevalo said that a transitional shelter creates a situation where “basically you don’t really live anywhere. You have to carry all of you stuff out every morning, and come back to the facility at the endo f the day and hope you’re able to get in.”

After the vote, LUC Chair Matt Rodgers asked William McKenna, an attorney for Connections, to submit a special use application for the property within the next 10 days so it could be place on the commission’s docket for an upcoming meeting.

McKenna said he would do that.

On May 25 the commission is also scheduled to hear an appeal by the owner of the Margarita from a separate ruling by the zoning administrator that a rooming house special use permit issued to the property in 1974 had expired after the building was converted decades ago for use as a hotel.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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