The latest special permit application from the owner of Villa Lewaro, Richelieu Dennis, received a chilly reception on Nov. 1, when both the village board and neighbors criticized many of the provisions, particularly one calling for frequent meetings with larger groups of visitors than the previous draft.
At prior public hearings, it became clear that the neighborhood wouldn’t support what the newly conceived Madam Walker Institute for Women Entrepreneurs of Color, a nonprofit created by Dennis, envisioned as standard operating procedure for the North Broadway site. The original application posited multiple events per month with 50 or more participants, plus about 12 staff members at each event. The Institute also intended to hold larger “special events,” with as many as 400 people, a few times a year.
In a revised “Statement of Use” discussed at the Nov. 1 public hearing, the “50 or more participants” had grown to 100 people plus 12 staff, without any requirement that Village officials be notified. The Institute’s attorney, Jennifer Gray of Keane & Beane, explained the increase was made because “the applicant needs the flexibility to schedule programming to include up to 100 attendees to accommodate elements of its programming.”
There was no mention of events for 400 people, since the board had made it clear at previous meetings that such an event would require a special permit that would pay particular attention to crowd control, parking arrangements, noise, and security. Nobody wanted a repeat of the Pyer Moss fashion show at the villa in July, when hundreds of attendees crowded the property and surrounding streets. Neighbors griped about people parking in unauthorized locations, amplifiers blasting music that shook nearby homes’ windows, and fashion show attendees who threw trash onto neighbors’ lawns. Before that event, which was to be filmed and streamed, the organizers filed a film permit application, on which they had indicated there would be 75 people and 10 cars on the site. The village was blindsided when droves arrived, numbering in the hundreds.
The final category described in the new Statement of Use does describe occasions when the Institute would host special events with more than 112 people, for other organizations that relate to the charitable purpose of the Institute. But it doesn’t specify how large those events might be.
Villa Lewaro proposes that when such an event is planned, “the village board would be sent a written request to ensure appropriate protocols are in place for traffic, parking, and staging that may require temporary use of public streets.” The proposal states that although the Village would have to approve such events in advance, “No public hearing shall be required.” This last provision came in for criticism because of its implication that the public would have no input on the application.
Trustee Janice Silverberg said that the Pyer Moss event last summer “raised a huge red flag about what could happen unless the board keeps a careful eye on this.” She thought the board should direct the Institute to go back to the original 50 attendees plus 12 staff to start, and should require village board approval for larger receptions. “That feels, to me, responsive to the community concerns,” she said. “I don’t feel it would be putting a tremendous burden on you [the applicant] to run that by the board.”
Gray reminded the board that the special permit would have limitations in place to prevent problems like those that arose at the summer event from happening again. But Trustee Mark Gilliland agreed with Silverberg, remarking, “Going from 50 plus 12 to 100 plus 12 guests seems to be really flying in the face of all the comments we have been making as a board, and that the residents have been making.” He recommended starting small for the first year and then building out from there if the community is satisfied with the Institute’s handling of those smaller events.
He added that “regardless of how much I like the idea of the operation of the Institute,” he was “100 percent against” the way the applicant has gone in the opposite direction from the feedback given to them by the board.” He added that there had to be limitations on noise of all kinds, not just “amplified” noise mentioned in the application. This could include, for example, people chatting outside at night while leaving an event to get on the jitney bus.
Neighbor Sara Parganos of Fargo Lane said she has three small children, and although she supports the Institute’s mission, “I didn’t buy my property to be next to a property that was going to be doing special events until 10:30.”
Judd Harcher, Villa Lewaro’s next-door neighbor, commented on the plan’s “profound effects on the neighbors in the village,” and said that while he appreciated the villa’s offer to put up bushes to screen his property from the villa’s carriage house that extends over his property line, “Screening helps with the visual, but not noise. The noise is still going to come through.” He said that he asked a real estate agent friend what the Institute’s plan might do to the value of his property, and she said that it would “definitely limit the number of people interested.”
“This is what I lose sleep over,” Harcher said.
Gray said she would pass the comments from the trustees and neighbors on to her client, and would submit any changes they make to their application before the next hearing, on Nov. 15, so that residents will have time to prepare comments.