Instead of Waiting to Be Taken, Businesses Take City to Court

The businesses in the Five Corners TIF district in Des Plaines, Ill., have continued to run successfully over the past three years.  But their properties have languished under the city’s blight designation, in part because the city can take their property via eminent domain at any point and has no plans for what to do after it has seized the property. 

After nearly three years of being declared “blighted,” a group of four businesses in the Five Corners TIF district have filed suit against the city, rightfully claiming the blight designation is bogus. So far, nothing has stopped local officials’ vague plans for the area, but the businesses have had enough with having their livelihoods put in jeopardy.

One of those businesses is Chromatech Printing, Inc., a printing company started in 1983 by Michael Van Slambrouck and his wife Barbara.

She told the Des Plaines News in June that the businesses were suing to protect property rights, noting the cost that comes with defending that fundamental right: “It’s awful that we have to risk our retirement savings in order to protect our property rights, which we should be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”[1]

In the state of Illinois, eminent domain is allowed for economic development only in established Tax Increment Financing districts. In order to establish a TIF district, there needs to be a blight study.  The business owners’ suit claims the city did a poor job while they worked quickly to establish the redevelopment area back in 2006.  The business owners also argue that the city’s “blight” designation is hurting their properties, slowly creating the blight that city officials claim is already there.

The Van Slambroucks and other property owners in the TIF district have been fighting the city officials since 2005, when city officials first proposed a 96-acre TIF district. The original proposal affected 100 businesses, more than 50 homes and a trailer park with 220 residents.[2]  Under Illinois law, a TIF district, once established, can last up to 23 years. That means that it is possible that the businesses in the Five Corners Plan area would be under the threat of eminent domain until 2029.

City officials at first indicated that they planned to replace these properties with an up-scale business district of some sort, but the city has never come out with a specific plan.  City officials, however, have mentioned to local media that they would like to see big-box stores replace local businesses.[3]  After learning that the city wanted to replace them specifically however, many of the businesses came together quickly to form the Triangle Business Owners Association. 

The increased pressure from local residents and business owners forced the city to exempt the trailer park from the redevelopment plan in March 2006. Two months later, a consultant hired by the park district, school districts, and Maine Township found that the city had “misrepresented and possibly overstated” the case for blight in the neighborhood.[4]

As if that were not bad enough, another consultant stated that not only had the city exaggerated its findings but that the blight analysis appeared to be copied and pasted from the blight study done for the southwest suburb of Oak Lawn.[5]

In response to the city’s insistence on proceeding in spite of the shoddy study, citizens gathered enough signatures to get the question on the November 2006 ballot. The result would have only been advisory, but that was enough to force city officials to make some concessions. In an effort to placate voters, the city council removed some businesses and nearly all of the homes from the proposed TIF district the day before the vote. Nevertheless, a majority of voters voted against the TIF plan. [6]

Unfortunately, that didn’t stop city officials either. City officials have since articulated their plans to borrow just $7.5 million to pay for the properties, which, they have made clear, they plan on handing over to private developers. But officials still admit they have no plans for the area—they’ve just “got to do something.”[7]

[1] Pat Krochmal, “TIF businesses sue Des Plaines,” Des Plaines News, June 3, 2008.

[2] Ames Boykin, “Des Plaines plan sparks development concerns,” Chicago Daily Herald, February 2, 2006, at 1; Ames Boykin, “Proposed legislation would add hurdle,” Chicago Daily Herald, May 3, 2006, at 7; “Mobile home park is spared by the city,” Chicago Tribune, March 7, 2006, at METRO 3.

[3] “Bajor Keeping Quiet On TIF Lawsuit,” The Journal & Topics, June 6, 2006.

[4] Ames Boykin, “Five Corners not blighted, consultant says; School districts vote no after report says city ‘misrepresented’ factors in quest for TIF,” Chicago Daily Herald, May 19, 2006, at 1.

[5] Ames Boykin, “Five Corners tempers flare Consultant defens study for tax district,” Chicago Daily Herald, June 27, 2006 at 1.

[6] Ames Boykin, “Development of Five Corners on November ballot,” Chicago Daily Herald, August 22, 2006; Mark Shuman, “Des Plaines protects properties; Homes, some firms off ‘5-corners’ plan,” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 2006.

[7] Ames Boykin, “Why city plans to buy land Des Plaines says it wants to jumpstart Five Corners,” Chicago Daily Herald, October 31, 2007, at 1.