GENEVA – The March 8 approval of Emma’s Landing, a 45-unit affordable rental townhouse subdivision on 7.75 acres just north of Lewis Road, became an area of contention in the April 6 mayoral race between incumbent Kevin Burns and challenger Tom Simonian.
Simonian has seized upon the controversy and made it part of his campaign, supporting homeowners in neighboring subdivisions who opposed it.
Opponents of Emma’s Landing have also tied Simonian’s campaign to their issue, according to a letter mailed Thursday entitled, “Say No To Emma’s Landing” and signed “Citizens in Support of a Leadership Change.”
The letter lists issues directly from Simonian’s campaign literature, adding, “Our concerns about the density, increase in traffic, flooding, economic impact, lack of supportive housing on-site services and failure to disclose the identify of interest fell on deaf ears.”
In campaign literature, Simonian charged that Burns recommended selling the city’s land for that development – which was valued at $1.8 million in 2007 – for $10 – to advance affordable housing.
In response, Burns’ literature countered that the land was identified as part of the Homes for a Changing Region Affordable Housing Study, which the City Council – including Simonian at the time – voted to adopt.
In 2019, the City Council approved an incentive program to attract potential affordable housing, which included donating land for a nominal fee.
Records show that the time the City Council voted to put the land up for sale as surplus Nov. 20, 2020, the nearly 7.6 acres was valued at $720,000 in a more recent appraisal done in September 2019.
Burns said a government entity cannot just give property away, even as a development incentive, without some cash token of exchange – hence the $10 in connection with the project.
The Burton Foundation, an Elgin-based nonprofit that builds affordable rental housing, was the only offer and officials voted to accept the offer for $576,000 after it was clear the City Council would not support the land donation, Burns said.
Burns’ campaign literature called that, “End of story.”
But Simonian’s campaign mailing also claims that, “You really must question that the appraisal done just before the Mayor offered the $10 deal to his friend’s wife came in at $720,000,” referring to Burton Foundation’s executive director Tracey Manning’s husband, Bryan Fellhauer, who also went to Geneva High School.
Burns said he was in the class of 1982 and Fellhauer was in the class of 1985 at Geneva High School and though they knew of each other, they were not friends.
“I am all for affordable housing, so long as it’s fair and equitable for both the citizens, the developers and including the tenants who are going to be part of an affordable housing development,” Simonian said at a March 18 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County. “But I believe that affordable housing should be spread along in all developments … instead of putting a large development in one area – because we’ve learned that that doesn’t work.”
Simonian said a proposed apartment development at the former Duke and Lee site on Route 31 should have had affordable units included in the plan, and if a housing plan is approved for the former Mill Race Inn site, that should also include affordable housing units.
Simonian also blamed Burns for the emails from the public opposing Emma’s Landing being made public, including names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers.
“It is a public document. It can be shared openly,” Burns said.
“I don’t understand sometimes the concern that if I write to an elected official, and I share my opinion with that elected official, that I somehow should be embarrassed if that document becomes public,” Burns had said at the March 18 forum. “If those are my passions, those are my beliefs, then I’d assume the author of that would stand up. And I would defend, and perhaps explain, those words.”
Burns said if someone writes to him, as a public official, and he shares that information “in the spirit of public transparency,” because it is a public body’s right and obligation to do so – “that’s not nefarious. That’s actually the transparency people are looking for.”
Burns suggested that if someone did not want their letter “broadcast all over the place, particularly communication that is tough, then think twice before you are writing.”
Simonian said he agreed with Burns that the content of what is sent to public officials is public.
But Simonian said personal information such as the writer’s name, address, email and phone number should not be made public.
“Trust that if I am mayor, that information will remain private and not be shared by this city with anyone,” Simonian said.
Burns said later that everyone who submits an email or letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission has that un-redacted communication attached to the minutes as part of the official record.
Simonian charged that issues arose with Emma’s Landing because the public was kept in the dark until the 11th hour then showed up “with torches and pitchforks” at City Hall.
Simonian recommended putting information on proposed developments in citizens’ utility bills “regardless of whether it’s next door to you or on the other side of town.”
In response, Burns said the city has a sophisticated free program where residents can sign up for notification alerts about anything going on in Geneva by checking the boxes they are interested in – including development information as soon as an application is filed.”