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Local Government

McHenry County ZBA falls short of recommending Marengo nuns' expansion

County Board needs supermajority to approve Fraternite of Notre Dame plans

H. Rick Bamman - 
A sister from the Fraternite Notre Dame mows the lawn on the grounds of the monastery on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The McHenry County Zoning Board will vote Wednesday on the planned significant expansion the Fraternite have planned for their property.
H. Rick Bamman - A sister from the Fraternite Notre Dame mows the lawn on the grounds of the monastery on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The McHenry County Zoning Board will vote Wednesday on the planned significant expansion the Fraternite have planned for their property.

WOODSTOCK – A request by an obscure French Christian order to get a McHenry County Zoning Board of Appeals recommendation to significantly expand its Coral Township operations fell one vote short.

The zoning board voted Wednesday afternoon, 4-3, in favor of recommending approval for the Fraternite of Notre Dame’s conditional use permit to add a boarding school, nursing home, winery, brewery and gift shop to its 95 acres at 10003 Harmony Hill Road. A recommendation for approval or denial requires five votes.

The polarizing issue, which has galvanized neighbors and township government opposed to the order’s request, now goes to the County Board, which first granted the order a conditional use permit in 2005 to build a chapel, convent, monastery and bakery on the property about three miles south of Marengo and Union.

Zoning Board members David Stone, John Rosene and Linnea Kooistra voted against the permit, concluding after months of hearings and testimony that the expansion is not compatible with the rural area and county and township land use plans.

“I believe this is the wrong location for this type of operation,” Kooistra said.

Neighbors who were angry when the County Board approved the original 2005 permit are angrier over the proposed expansion, and have alleged the Fraternite has not been a good neighbor when it comes to construction and work hours. While the order maintains they are doing God’s work, opponents said  adding a school, hospice and brewery will make the property a worse fit for the rural area than they allege it already is.

Neighbor Rob Cisneros, who is among the public faces of the opposition, said the issue has always been about the location and not the Fraternite or its mission – the order and its supporters have maintained during the process that opponents are motivated by bigotry.

“It’s not about what they’re doing, it’s about where they’re located. That’s it. I hope that’s what the County Board weighs in their consideration,” Cisneros said after the vote.

Neighbors submitted more than 800 signatures, most of them local, in opposition to the proposed expansion.

Siding with the Fraternite on the zoning board were a majority of Chairman Rich Kelly and members Charles Eldredge, Vicki Gartner and Ed Haerter. Eldredge called much of opponents’ testimony “completely irrelevant” to the land use issue at hand, and Kelly became visibly angry when it became obvious the Fraternite’s request would fall short of five votes.

“The scale … simply does not rise to the point of being an inappropriate use on this site, given it has already been approved for all these things in the past,” Eldredge said.

Attorney Tom Zanck, who represents the Fraternite, criticized the three opposing votes, and said his client met every required standard to get a positive recommendation.

A simple majority of the County Board is needed to approve the conditional use permit – the soonest it can vote on the matter is at its Sept. 15 meeting. But Coral Township’s objection means that an 18-vote supermajority is needed to approve all variances from county ordinance that the Fraternite is requesting.

Supporters and opponents of the proposal have been addressing the County Board in recent months during public comment, and its Tuesday evening meeting was no exception.

Neighbor Judy Link was one of several who told the board that she is “sick and tired of being called a hateful bigot” by the Fraternite's supporters, and that the issue is strictly one of zoning and land use.

“This makes me wonder why we have a land plan or zoning if they can change it to fit their needs,” Link said.

Most of the Fraternite’s supporters who spoke Tuesday evening were from Chicago, an area in which the Fraternite does most of its area charitable works. But local veterinarian Shawn Costello, who has taken care of the order’s animals, urged the County Board to approve the conditional use permit.

“The commitment of the order to works of charity is unquestioned,” Costello said.

Fraternite Notre Dame was founded in 1977 by French Bishop Jean Marie, who claims he received divine inspiration from the Virgin Mary to do so to help the disadvantaged. The order identifies as Catholic, but is not recognized by the Vatican.

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