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6 years into trying to get a house built, man suing Highland Park over delays

(MCT) — Zafar Sheikh thought building a house on vacant land in Highland Park would be a breeze. All early indications from governing officials, he said, pointed to a smooth, quick approval.

That was more than six years ago. Today, the wooded property Sheikh bought near Lake Cook Road and U.S. Highway 41 remains vacant. Neighbors have raised objections to his plans, he has yet to receive a building permit and, he claims, the city has requested multiple alterations. In response, Sheikh filed lawsuits against the neighbors and the city, alleging they have sought to keep him out because of his ethnicity and religion.

Separate judges recently threw out the complaints against the residents and many against the city, but the discrimination allegation against the city was allowed to stand for now.

While Sheikh's efforts to build his home have been unexpectedly complex, difficult and litigious, his story has many of the usual trappings of an immigrant seeking his American dream.

Sheikh, 63, a Muslim who grew up in Pakistan, said he came to the United States in his early 20s to study law. He made his way to the Chicago area more than 20 years ago, where he has owned a number of grocery and liquor stores and formerly was a mercantile exchange trader. As he became more financially secure, he looked toward the affluent North Shore to build a home for his family.

"I loved that place. I loved that area," said his wife, Aneeqa.

In 2006, Zafar Sheikh learned that several Highland Park properties owned by Lake County in the city were to be sold at auction. Before bidding, he asked the city if a house could be built on the lots and was told yes, his suit claims.

City officials said they couldn't discuss specifics of the lawsuit or whether they gave Sheikh any informal guidance on the property before he bought it.

But city attorney Steven Elrod called the city's handling of his case "perfectly legitimate and perfectly proper."

"I can tell you very succinctly there is no merit to any of the allegations," Elrod said.

Sheikh said he paid about $170,000 for four lots totaling about 20,000 square feet on the edge of the Village of Woods subdivision and applied to have them consolidated with the intention of building a nearly 6,000-square-foot house.

Eventually, he bought a fifth adjoining lot to satisfy city code provisions regarding the ownership of adjacent property, though city officials would not confirm his claims that they encouraged him to do so.

Although the area is zoned for housing, Sheikh's proposal required variances from the city. This was in part due to the atypical location and shape of the property, according to village records. Sheikh's property, a group of lots in a row, is unusually long and narrow, tapers at one end and borders an Illinois Department of Transportation easement.

After having his plans drawn up and suffering other delays, Sheikh's petition was sent in spring 2010 to the local zoning board, which provides recommendations to the City Council on lot consolidation and variance requests. Although Sheikh said he was advised his requests would be approved within a few weeks, the hearings continued into early 2011.

Ultimately, the board rejected Sheikh's proposed setbacks from the lot lines but recommended in favor of consolidation of the lots. However, the City Council did not act on the consolidation.

During those months, Sheikh frequently revised his plans at the zoning board's request, all the while hearing objections from neighborhood residents. Thirty residents attached their names to a letter of complaint filed with the city. They said Sheikh's planned home didn't fit the character of the neighborhood — apparently objecting more to its size and location than its stone-facade design — and would eliminate a wooded area that the homeowners said provide beauty, privacy and a noise buffer. They also expressed concerns that the new development would cause flooding.

To Sheikh, those were all excuses for what he believes was the real reason behind their opposition: his ethnicity and religion. He claims neighbors made threats against him.

"This much discrimination I have never faced," he said.

Multiple neighbors who signed the complaint declined to be interviewed, but their lawyer, John Sheldon, called the allegations "baseless" and "outrageous."

And last month, Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. dismissed all claims against the residents, ruling that Sheikh could not show their objections went beyond typical concerns about development.

"He cannot draw on the neighbors' common opposition to his plans as evidence of a racist conspiracy," Dow wrote. "There is a difference between saying, effectively — or, in this case, literally — 'not in my back yard' and opposing someone's plans to build a house because of their national origin."

Sheikh's claims against the city were more extensive. In the 17 counts in the lawsuit, he asserted the zoning board made demands of him that overstepped its jurisdiction, such as dictating design and engineering matters. He also claimed the city retaliated against him for the filing of the suit by not voting on the lot consolidation.

Many of the claims against the city have been dismissed, according to court records, though the one claiming racial and religious discrimination still stands.

The judge in the case has warned Sheikh, however, that he will need "sufficient evidence to support his remaining claims."

Sheikh said he still doesn't understand why his lots, zoned residential, aren't suitable for the home he wants to build.

"All this time is costing us thousands of dollars for attorneys, architects and surveyors," Sheikh said. "It's not a church, it's not a synagogue, it's not a homeless shelter, it's not a shopping center. This is not a small lot."

Elrod maintains that the zoning board's review period was relatively brief, given the number of changes Sheikh's plans went through.

"It's not unusual when you have an applicant who has submitted multiple revisions," Elrod said. "He sought a lot of variations to put a particular plan in."

It wasn't the first time Sheikh had sued over property-related matters. He acknowledged twice suing the city of Chicago. One suit, he said, was over a special-use permit for a South Side gas station. Another time, after he was cited by the city for municipal code violations, he sued to challenge the fines he incurred, court records show.

Elrod said Sheikh no longer needs variances to build his home since he bought the fifth lot but simply "hasn't tried" to pursue that since the purchase.

Sheikh said he still believes that the city's setback requirements would preclude he and his wife from building the home they want. And, six years into their ordeal, his wife said, he has soured on the neighborhood and no longer wants to live there.

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