When a development project comes up for review in Evanston, one of the more commonly heard complaints from neighbors who don’t like the proposed new building is that they weren’t told it was coming.

When a development project comes up for review in Evanston, one of the more commonly heard complaints from neighbors who don’t like the proposed new building is that they weren’t told it was coming.

So, here’s a look at how you can keep informed about projects that may affect you.

The rules are somewhat different for projects of different sizes, but planned developments — any project with over two-dozen units or more than 20,000 square feet of space — are the ones most likely to draw public interest, so we’ll focus on those.

What’s required
The Evanston’s zoning code requires three kinds of notice before the first Plan Commission hearing on a planned development. So, you could:

Wait for a notice in the mail
The code requires that the city make an attempt to notify by postal mail property owners who live within 1,000 feet of a proposed planned development.

Community Development Director James Wolinski says the city’s geographic information system makes it pretty easy to assemble a list of property identification numbers for parcels within that radius.

But, he says, things get complicated after that.

The property ID numbers are associated in the database with street addresses. But not all those street addresses match the numbers actually displayed on the buildings. As a result, Mr. Wolinski says, a significant number of notices are returned by the post office.

The property ID numbers can be linked to taxpayer names through records in the county treasurer’s office. But those names often don’t get updated until a year or more after a property changes hands. To deal with that, the city now addresses the notices to “resident” rather than to a person’s name. But Mr. Wolinski admits that may lead to some recipients discarding the notice as junk mail.

Similarly, it often takes the county a year or more to update its records to show the handover of a condominium building from a developer to its new individual unit owners. Until that happens, the records indicate only one notice needs to be sent to a building that may have dozens of owners.

And the rules don’t require any mailed notice to tenants — just to owners.

Finally, Mr. Wolinski adds, the legal format required for the mailed Plan Commission notices may cause some recipients to not bother to take the time to read or fully understand them.

The city budgets $5,000 a year to send out notices to neighbors, and Mr. Wolinski says he regularly ends up going over that amount.

If you live within 1,000 feet but didn’t get a notice and think the project stinks, you may figure that your not getting notice will bring the project to a screeching halt. Sorry, no such luck. As the zoning code says at section 6-3-6-8(c): “The failure of delivery of such notice, however, shall not invalidate any such hearing.”

Look for the sign
The city requires developers to post a sign in front of the planned development site to announce the Plan Commission meeting 10 days ahead of time. The signs are about the size of a real estate broker’s sign and have a pocket that holds copies of the official meeting notice.

Read the notice in the Evanston Review
Evanston’s oldest general-circulation newspaper, because it’s the only one that publishes weekly year-round, is the city’s chosen venue for publishing legal notices.

Of course only a third of Evanston households subscribe to the Review, and the notices are printed in really small type back in the classified ad section, so the effectiveness of the thousands of dollars the city spends each year on those published notices is in some doubt. But it’s required by the state’s zoning enabling statute, so it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Beyond the requirements
There are several other ways to find out about development projects — sometimes long before they head to the Plan Commission.

Zoning e-mail list
The city maintains a set of e-mail lists. If you sign up at on the city web site for the Zoning Information list, you’ll receive notice of what’s on the agenda for the weekly Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee meetings and the (generally monthly) meetings of the Plan Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The site plan committee, composed of employees from various city departments, reviews planned developments before they go to the Plan Commission, so it’s often where a project first becomes publicly known. And, if you’re free at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re free to attend.

Read Evanston Now
Shameless plug time: Evanston Now provides the most in-depth coverage of development issues of any news medium in town. We’re often the only news organization to report on site plan and Plan Commission meetings. And we post their agendas online.

Community meetings
In recent years several aldermen have started holding community meetings about development projects in their wards before they reach the Plan Commission. Those aren’t required by the zoning code and aren’t a formal part of the review process. But they give neighbors a chance to give informal feedback to developers, which often leads to changes in a project’s design.

The city makes a practice of mailing notices to residents within 1,000 feet of a project for those meetings and has tried other techniques like distributing handbills. But Mr. Wolinski says they still have troubles getting the fliers into some big apartment and condo buildings. The meetings often also are listed on the city web site’s calendar and in Evanston Now’s events section.

Several aldermen have recently set up their own ward-specific e-mail lists, and when you sign up for the city zoning list you can sign up for your ward’s mailing list on the same page. (Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, has her own list separate from the city site.)

Join a neighborhood group
One of the best ways to keep up on what’s happening in your neighborhood is to join a block club or other community group in your area. There’s a list of some such groups on the Evanston Public Library’s web site.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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