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Gas station plan fueling outrage in Tinley

(MCT) — A vacant lot on Harlem Avenue less than a mile south of the Interstate Highway 80 exit might seem like an ideal location for a giant car wash/gas/convenience store/fast food outlet. But not for the residents of the adjacent subdivision.

"It would be like having the Titanic docked right in your backyard, lit up, bright as day, 24 hours a day," said homeowner Gary Rennie, whose sideyard abuts a 5-acre parcel on Harlem south of 194th that is the proposed site of a Lenny's Gas and Wash.

And Rennie and his neighbors are not going down without a fight.

Last week, before a packed Land Use and Zoning Committee meeting, Will County officials tabled a vote on approving plans for the business, which has asked for special permits to sell liquor and operate a drive-thru window.

The delay, until the committee's Dec. 2 meeting, will give Lenny's owner Leonard McEnery time to meet with residents to address their concerns. McEnery's attorney, Lyman Tieman, did not return calls from the Tribune.

In the month since they received a certified letter from gas station owner McEnery, Rennie, his wife and a group of other neighbors have canvassed the surrounding trio of subdivisions, gathering nearly 700 signatures on a petition urging Will County planning officials to vote down the plans.

Rennie never realized the scruffy, bank-owned lot they lived next to for a dozen years was zoned for commercial uses, including gas stations, and the retired couple was glad when a law office and a bank opened along Harlem near the entrance to the Tinley Trails subdivision.

But the stretch of Harlem further south also boasts some less-attractive businesses: a landscaping supply company with mounds of lumber and topsoil, and even a Speedway with a car wash — both of which back up to residential neighborhoods.

And while Rennie and most of his neighbors live in the small part of Tinley Park that lies south of I-80, the lot and everything within about 400 feet of Harlem is in a tiny pocket of unincorporated Frankfort Township.

Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki has sent a letter to Will County asking that the county require McEnery to follow the village's zoning requirements, but said there is little the village can do to stop his plans.

"That property the way it's zoned, a gas station can go on there," said Zabrocki, who urged residents to negotiate with McEnery.

The land, all zoned by Will County, has been slated for commercial development since the 1990s, said Will County Senior Planner Mike Smetana.

If McEnery hadn't requested the permits for the liquor sales and drive thru, there would have been very little chance of even delaying the start of construction, said Dan Tarlock, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

As it stands, even if local officials were to vote down Lenny's proposal, they likely would just be inviting a lawsuit from McEnery. Residents' complaints about potential traffic congestion, crime, pollution, noise or even declining property values are all legitimate concerns, but were supposed to have been considered when local governments were figuring out how to zone the community, Tarlock said.

"Those are all arguments that you would make when the (zoning) ordinance was passed," Tarlock said, noting that similar protests often crop up in "transition" areas between zoning for homes and commercial or industrial land. Residents can sue to stop construction, but property developers' rights are strong in zoning fights, Tarlock said.

A better solution might have been for a zoning ordinance that provided for a buffer zone of lighter commercial businesses, but "once the ordinance is already in effect... it's pretty impossible to challenge," he said.

Tarlock noted that residents could sue over health threats or nuisances caused by the station — but only after the business is open if it becomes a nuisance.

"That's very cold comfort," he said.

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