By Todd Wessell – Journal & Topics

April 5, 2024

In a stinging rebuke of assertions made by leaders of the Chicago District Campground Association (formerly known as the Methodist Campground), a Cook County judge Tuesday dismissed all eight counterclaims made by the organization that the city of Des Plaines is using its powers to stymie the way it practices its religion.

On numerous occasions during the hearing, Judge James Allegretti insisted that the campground’s lawyer stick to the facts of the case involving the city’s demand that it demolish or rehab 75 frame buildings that are in poor condition on its property, and to stop speculating about the case. On two occasions during the hearing, Allegretti said he believes the matter will eventually be decided by an Illinois Appellate Court.

Tuesday’s hearing in the Skokie courthouse was just the latest in a long line of encounters between the city and campground about the questionable conditions of the buildings. Des Plaines asserts that those structures are a danger to the health and safety of people who live and attend functions on the 35-acre parcel that’s located along Algonquin Road on the south and the Des Plaines River on the west. Campground officials claim that the city’s filing of a lawsuit on the issue about two years ago is based on a revenge factor stemming from a 2020 tent revival on the property during the height of the COVID pandemic. The city says that its desire at the time, possibly fueled in part by local residents’ concerns, was to make sure that attendees took appropriate precautions so they would not infect the local population with the disease. The revival went on as planned. Some witnesses said that they observed attendees not wearing protective masks and they were standing close together which could lead to the spreading of COVID. It’s believed that no one contracted COVID because of the revival.

Judge Allegretti’s rulings to dismiss leaves the door open for the campground to contest two or three of the dismissals. Most, however, were “dismissed with prejudice” meaning those rulings are final. If the campground chooses to amend any of its “without prejudice” counterclaims it has 60 days to do so. If not, the next step would probably lead to a trial on the city’s lawyer asking that the buildings be repaired or demolished.

Representing the city during the 90-minute hearing was its top lawyer Peter Friedman who argued that the only thing the city wants is for the 75 buildings to be either rehabbed or demolished to ensure public safety. He also addressed all of the counterclaims made by the campground including its belief that the facility’s 1867 charter allows it to operate without government interference. Another claim by the campground is that the city supported the construction of Levee 50 near the campground, causing additional flooding. Levee 50 is a flood control system located along Busse Highway whose purpose was to curb flooding into neighborhoods and businesses north of the river.

“That is an absurd assertion,” said Friedman, noting the campground’s assertion that the levee leads to more flooding on their property.

One other key dismissal by the judge was the campground’s contention that the city’s actions interfered with their First Amendment rights to practice their religion.

Said the judge, “They provide no facts on this. There’s no specific anything that these 75 buildings are important to their beliefs. There were no religious events canceled as a result of the city’s complaint. The counterclaims are full of assumptions, but not one fact.”

Campground attorney Steven Tensmeter explained that the 75 buildings represent about 70% of all the structures currently on the acreage. “The idea of destroying 75 properties is a burden,” he said, adding his clients are willing to have some of the structures demolished. He estimated that numerous tickets issued by the city to compel the demolitions total as much as $8 million in penalties. Allegretti admonished this claim.

“It is a big stick that’s being held over our heads,” continued Tensmeyer. “It has a chilling effect,” explaining that some campground residents who live there during mostly warm months might decide not to return. The attorney confirmed that approximately 20 to 30 people, including a few children, reside part of the year in the 75 structures.

“We’d like to get back to a cordial relationship,” Tensmeyer mentioned. However, he quickly said he would like to know whether the city treated other gatherings of 50 or more people at that time differently than the campground.

“No malice was involved,” interjected Allegretti. “You have a complaint replete with conclusions that are short on facts. We have to get through this rather than beating it to death. The Appellate Court will make a decision on this sometime down the road. I want to see if this can be worked out. We should not be going to war over this.”

Allegretti also said that the total legal bills both sides have spent on this litigation would likely be more than enough to pay for the demolitions and rehabilitations.