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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Barring a Black Old Age Home Wasn’t Racist

CHICAGO (CN) - A Chicago suburb that would not let a Ramada Inn convert into a facility for black retirees did not commit racial discrimination, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Parvati Corp. built the 60-room Ramada Inn, located next to the Interstate 57 in a limited manufacturing district, in 2000. The district's "M" zoning designation permitted operation of the hotel as a highway-oriented use.

The hotel proved unprofitable, however, and Parvati signed a contract in 2004 to have an affiliate of the Bethlehem Missionary Temple Baptist Church buy the property for $4.5 million and convert it into a "senior independent living facility."

The pastor and most members of the church's congregation are black. Though church membership would not be a requirement of residence in the retirement home, most residents would likely be members of the church.

Since the new retirement home would not qualify as a highway-oriented use, the sale required Parvati to obtain a zoning change from Oak Forest.

When Parvati's real estate agent met with the city officials to discuss the rezoning request, he reported getting the "impression" that they favored the idea.

Two weeks after meeting with Parvati and Bethlehem Missionary's pastor, however, the city replaced the "M" zoning classification with two new classifications distinguishing between light and heavy industrial uses. The change made operation of the hotel "nonconforming," though use as a highway-oriented hotel was grandfathered.

The city administrator then rejected Parvati's license request, pointing out that the original zoning ordinance had limited permission to hotels providing temporary lodging.

Oak Forest also rejected Parvati's application for a special-use permit for "extended stay hotels," attributing that classification to a scrivener's error.

Parvati eventually lost the hotel in foreclosure, and the next owner continued operation as a Best Western.

In a subsequent complaint, Parvati claiming that Oak Park had discriminated against it based on the Indian origin of its owners and the race of the intended retiree residents.

After Pavarti dropped claims related to the Indian national origin, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve rejected the charge of racial discrimination in zoning. A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed Friday.

Parvati's arguments relied entirely on irregularities in the zoning process, according to the ruling.

"It presented no evidence of racially tinged remarks or actions by the city's officials or indeed of any racial tensions in Oak Forest," Judge Richard Posner wrote for a three-member panel. "It also presented no evidence that a retirement home catering to white people has ever been allowed in an M district."

None of the unquestionably present irregularities proved more numerous or serious than what occurred in other Oak Forest zoning proceedings, the court found.

"Besides the irregularities and the timing of the amendment, no evidence of racial discrimination has been offered other than the listing agent's 'impression' that City officials had been amendable to the proposed change in the use of the hotel building before they discovered it would be a retirement home for blacks," Posner wrote.

Zoning heavy- and light-manufacturing districts separately makes sense because of differences in smoke emissions, particles and odors from each type of manufacturing, according to the ruling

"It is even easier to see why a retirement home would be an inappropriate use in a heavy industrial district," Posner wrote.

The area surrounding the planned retirement home lacks sidewalks and streetlights, experiences significant truck traffic, and contains a number of industrial establishments.

"It is not a salubrious environment for old people, or indeed for residents of any age," Posner wrote. "And once there were long-term residents in the district, rather than transients, the city would face a demand for amenities such as sidewalks and street lights."

Moreover, the city council did not have to amend the zoning ordinance to block the proposed conversion.

"The existing ordinance limited nonindustrial uses in a manufacturing district to uses that are highway oriented, which the hotel was as long as a hotel, but would cease to be if it became a retirement home," Posner wrote.

Parvati furthermore presented no evidence that any comparable facility serving white clientele has been permitted in an Oak Forest manufacturing district.

The 7th Circuit quickly dispatched with Parvati's claim that the zoning ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, noting that the city's initial failure to designate how former M districts would divided into M-1 and M-2 districts did not cause Parvati any harm.

Located approximately 20 miles south of downtown Chicago, the city of Oak Forest has a population of 30,000.

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