Judge Tosses Large Portions of Evanston Residents’ Lawsuit Over Northwestern’s Ryan Field Deal

A rendering of a planned new Ryan Field in Evanston. (Credit: Northwestern University)A rendering of a planned new Ryan Field in Evanston. (Credit: Northwestern University)

A Cook County judge tossed out substantial portions of a lawsuit brought by Evanston residents seeking to halt the planned $800 million renovation of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.

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Judge Pamela McLean Meyerson on Friday agreed to dismiss three of four counts brought by a group of 13 residents who live near the stadium and who had asked the court to invalidate Evanston City Council’s 5-4 vote to change the city’s zoning law, allowing the renovated facility to host as many as six concerts per year.

“I will note, as I said upfront, this case is not over,” Meyerson said after delivering her ruling, “that count one, the constitutional claim, remains pending.”

The judge’s ruling came days after attorneys presented oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

Evanston’s council vote came last November, after city leaders negotiated an agreement with Northwestern that the school would provide the community at least $157 million over a 15-year period in tax revenue and other financial incentives.

But the lawsuit alleged that the city failed to follow the proper procedures in approving the renovation project. The complaint alleged that the city violated laws requiring a supermajority vote on a zoning change when a certain percentage of nearby residents are opposed to that change.

The plaintiffs also accused Evanston of violating residents’ due process rights and alleged Mayor Daniel Biss and some council members “cut a backroom deal in which they agreed to disregard the applicable laws and evidence in exchange for monetary contributions from Northwestern.”

But attorneys for the city and Northwestern argued the renovation vote was above board and clearly followed city and state law.

“Even if the City had failed to follow its own rules or state statutes in the ways Plaintiffs allege (which it did not), the law is clear that such a failure alone cannot provide Plaintiffs with a cause of action based on the City’s home rule authority,” city attorneys wrote in their response to the lawsuit.

The city also argued that it has specific situations where a supermajority is indeed required, but that a text amendment — like the one approved in this vote — is not among them.

“If the City had intended to require more than 5 votes to approve a text amendment, the City would have listed that requirement in Council Rule 25 along with all the other extraordinary vote requirements,” the city attorneys wrote. “The City Council Rules are clear: 5 votes is all that was required to pass the Text Amendment Ordinance.”

The plaintiffs in their suit argued that the text amendment was in fact a map amendment because rather than a zoning code change, it required a change to a zoning map — which is a situation where a supermajority would indeed be necessary for approval.

But Meyerson disagreed.

“My holding is that this is not a map amendment,” she said. “The amendment altered the permitted uses shown in the text of the zoning ordinance. It didn’t change the zoning classification … they didn’t have to make any changes to the zoning map to reflect those changes.”

The city said Friday’s ruling confirmed that it acted appropriately in amending the zoning district.

“The City remains committed to maintaining transparency and fairness in all of its decision-making processes and procedures,” a city spokesperson said in a statement.

David DeCarlo, president of the Most Livable City Association, which brought the lawsuit along with the Evanston residents, noted that the plaintiffs’ claim in count one — that the city violated constitutional due process — was not challenged by the university or city. But Meyerson on Friday did strike the plaintiffs’ request for damages in that count and ruled that each side will be responsible for covering their own attorney fees.

“While we disagree with today's ruling on our procedural due process claims, we will keep advocating for the full constitutional guarantee of due process that protects all residents from arbitrary government decisions,” DeCarlo said in a statement.

A Northwestern spokesperson declined to comment after the ruling Friday, saying the university would “reserve comment until the case is fully litigated.”

The parties are due back for a status hearing in the case June 26.

Blair Paddock contributed to this report.

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