2019 in DuPage County: The year that was

It was a year in DuPage County where controversy always loomed and nothing was as simple as it seemed.

We debated the legalized sale of pot and the appropriate location for a drug and alcohol treatment center. We dealt with social issues, from racially charged cases to controversies over books to the future of adult businesses. We worried about the environmental impact of a business and argued over the need for a housing development on a former golf course. We were stunned by a kennel fire and by the fall from grace of a high school football coach. We said goodbye to one of the region's last drive-in theaters and to a festival that helped put one of our biggest cities on the map.

Thankfully, there were brighter moments, too. The world's largest steam locomotive roared through the area and tens of thousands came out to celebrate. And then there was the Naperville native who stood a long-running TV game show on its ear.

This is the year that was ...

Pot or not?

Decisions about allowing recreational marijuana sales in 2020 dominated many municipal board and council meetings across DuPage after the state legislature in May authorized possession and use by adults 21 and older beginning Jan. 1.

The county itself decided against such sales in unincorporated areas. Several towns, including Lisle, Wheaton and Woodridge, also voted to ban such sales. Glen Ellyn enacted a temporary ban to take a wait-and-see approach and Naperville approved a ban as well, but will put the issue to voters in an advisory referendum on the March 17 primary ballot.

Many other towns, though, voted to allow the sales, including Addison, Aurora, Lombard, Warrenville and Winfield - if a business that gets a license from the state decides to open there. The state has issued nearly 40 early approval licenses to operators of medical marijuana dispensaries and plans to issue 75 more to other operators by next spring.

Haymarket controversy

It's been a difficult six months for supporters of a proposed 240-bed drug and alcohol treatment facility in what is now an Itasca hotel.

Haymarket Center in June unveiled a plan to buy and refurbish a Holiday Inn along Irving Park Road. But the proposal faced strong opposition from residents, questions from village officials and proceedings that have dragged for months.

Now the Chicago-based nonprofit group is suing Itasca over the village's refusal to classify the project as a health care facility.

A series of public hearings on the plan that started in October appear far from over. The hearings aren't scheduled to resume until Jan 22.

Ultimately, it will be up to the village board to decide if the project can move forward as a planned development.

Haymarket wants to refurbish the Holiday Inn to house hundreds of patients with substance abuse disorders at a time when advocates say there is a rising demand for services. In 2018, there were 98 confirmed deaths in DuPage from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.

But residents opposing Haymarket's plan say Itasca is too small to support the proposed facility. In addition to costing the town tax revenue by replacing the hotel, they say the center would strain police and emergency services.

Racial tension in Naperville

It began as an uncomfortable experience for 18 people in a multiracial group inside the Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar in Naperville, and soon became national news.

The group was asked to move from its original seats Oct. 26, and race was at the heart of the reason why. Many members of the group of six adults and 12 kids were black, and two customers sitting nearby - regulars at the restaurant who were known to have made racist remarks in the past - were white.

A police report later revealed the white customers never said anything to the group, nor made any racist comments that day. But Buffalo Wild Wings staff members told the group the reason they were being asked to move was the white regulars did not want to sit next to black people.

The families involved later retained an attorney. Their personal experience turned into a broad call for better measures at businesses to prevent bigotry and for Naperville residents to examine race relations in their city.

Earlier in the year, state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray commented on Facebook that Naperville has a "history of white supremacist policies," sparking calls for her resignation and discussions about diversity and discrimination.

And in November, a student at Naperville Central High School posted an image of a black classmate with the heading "Slave for Sale (NAPERVILLE)." The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited DuPage County roughly a week after news of the post went public and called on leaders to teach children to avoid the hurts of racism.

"I challenge us to learn to live together - that takes effort," he said.

Fire kills 29 dogs

A fire at a Carol Stream-area kennel killed 29 dogs in January and triggered outrage when authorities described the conditions many of the kennel's roughly 58 animals were living in.

Garrett Mercado, the Woodridge resident who operated The Bully Life Animal Services, formerly known as D & D Kennels, was charged with 28 misdemeanors - 14 counts of animal cruelty and 14 counts of violation of owner's duties - stemming from the early-morning blaze.

An investigation determined many of the dogs at the kennel along County Farm Road near North Avenue were mistreated, inappropriately tethered, placed in cages that were too small, or kept in crates stacked on top of one another. Mercado had been living in an apartment at the facility.

In the aftermath of the fire, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a state law to require kennels to be staffed at all times or install a fire alarm or sprinkler system in every building where animals are housed that notifies local fire departments.

The law "will protect pets from senseless tragedies and further our state's commitment to animal welfare," Pritzker said.

Wheaton author controversy

After drawing criticism, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials acknowledge they disinvited author Robin Stevenson after objecting to some of the LGBTQ stories - profiles of trailblazing gay and transgender rights activists - in her new children's book.

In July, a librarian at Longfellow Elementary and Anderson's Bookshops arranged for Stevenson to visit the Wheaton school in October. Stevenson was supposed to talk with 175 third- through fifth-graders about her book, "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change."

The night before her appearance, the district rescinded the invite. Initially, officials blamed their decision on a "lack of appropriate notification of the author's visit."

Superintendent Jeff Schuler later said that stories about gender identity "caused concern." He pointed to a chapter about Janet Mock, the first transgender woman of color to write and direct a TV episode.

But one school board member pushed back against their concerns and called for rescheduling Stevenson's appearance, according to emails obtained by the Daily Herald through a public records request.

"It just kills me that in this day and age, we have to give notice for someone being gay," Susan Booton wrote in an email to Schuler and school board President Brad Paulsen in November. "There was a time in the not-so-distant past that the same was true for being black or a Jew. Can't our district be part of moving this conversation forward?"

Stevenson said she wants the district to make a public statement in support of LGBTQ people.

The controversy will loom large over plans to implement a new state law requiring schools to highlight the roles and contributions of LGBTQ people in American history and culture. The law goes into effect July 1.

Sterigenics issue ends

Concerns over chemical emissions from a business on an industrial street in Willowbrook led to lawsuits, legislation and, ultimately, the exit of the company.

Sterigenics made plans to leave Willowbrook after it was unable to renew its lease following extended controversy over its emissions of a toxic gas called ethylene oxide, which it used to sterilize medical equipment. Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide can cause cancers such as leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The move to leave came after concerns over the chemical's health effects and after several regulatory steps that would have held the Sterigenics facility to strict emissions standards if it were to reopen.

Sterigenics' announcement in September that it would leave town was a relief for Mayor Frank Trilla, despite residents still feeling anger over their potential exposure to ethylene oxide.

"There's honest joy everywhere," Trilla said after the announcement. "Before you could cut the anxiety with a knife."

Indian Lakes project scrapped

The fate of a former golf course at Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale remains unknown months after the property owner and a developer scrapped plans to build hundreds of houses on the land.

First ILR LLC - which owns Indian Lakes - and K. Hovnanian Homes announced in August that they were no longer pursuing a project to transform roughly 191 acres of the 223-acre resort along Schick Road into a neighborhood for empty nesters.

The companies had started the process to seek village approval for the project. But a group of residents strongly opposed the redevelopment.

In the spring, large crowds attended three public hearings about K. Hovnanian's proposal to build 535 ranch-style houses. The first hearing drew more than 700 people and nearly everyone who spoke to the planning and zoning commission voiced opposition.

Even commissioners raised concerns about potential flooding, increased traffic, decreased property values and the removal of more than 1,000 high-quality trees.

Despite postponing the hearings and revising the proposal, the plug was pulled on the project before the planning and zoning commission could make its recommendation to the village board.

Controversies rock Lake Park football

The football program at Lake Park High School was hit by two controversies in the fall.

Chris Roll was removed as head football coach for failing to get a background check on a volunteer with the Roselle school's football team. Lake Park High School District 108 officials in November announced the findings of an internal investigation that focused on how Frank J. Battaglia was allowed to work with the team as a volunteer coach. Battaglia, 72, pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a high school girl in the early 1990s.

The internal probe found that Battaglia was never subject to the district's required criminal background process.

In addition to ousting Roll as head football coach, the district disciplined school Principal Dominic Manola and Athletic Director Pete Schauer.

Just weeks later, it was announced that the football program was placed on probation for one year after an investigation revealed four years of recruiting violations.

The Illinois High School Association ruled that Roll violated bylaws pertaining to the recruitment of students for athletic purposes.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a written statement that Roll "engaged in correspondence with potential student-athletes, including some outside his district, that met the definition of illegal recruiting per IHSA bylaws."

The football program is on probation through Nov. 21, 2020. Roll also is ineligible to coach at any IHSA school for one year.

Curtain falls on Cascade

One of the region's last drive-in movie theaters, the Cascade in West Chicago, closed after nearly 60 years as a slice of Americana.

Owner Jeffrey Kohlberg announced in March the drive-in would not reopen for the 2019 season. The theater had operated on 28 acres along North Avenue since 1961, but was unable to continue because the owners of the land, members of the Kuhn family, are trying to sell the site.

"Not often that you see a thriving business close," Kohlberg wrote in a Facebook post. "But it's out of our hands."

The closing left only one surviving "ozoner" in Chicago's suburbs: The Golden Age Cinemas' McHenry Outdoor Theater.

History center reopens

A burst pipe caused extensive flooding in the Glen Ellyn History Center and forced the building to remain closed for most of 2019. About 3 inches of water spread throughout the first floor, and the basement collected more than 6 feet after a 4-inch pipe from a fire suppression system burst in March.

In the immediate aftermath, longtime benefactors, high school students and supporters from other suburban museums rallied to move artifacts to temporary storage. Roughly 85% of the historical society's collection was spared from damage.

The history center, run by the nonprofit Glen Ellyn Historical Society, gradually began reopening in September after months of repairs.

Ribfest ends its reign

Ribfest was born in Naperville on Rotary Hill and raised at Knoch Park, where it celebrated the Fourth of July for 31 of its 32 years in town.

But Ribfest 2019 was the last to be held in the city, as planned park renovations led festival organizers to find a site elsewhere.

Organizers with the Exchange Club of Naperville chose Romeoville and began planning Ribfest 2020 to take place there at the village hall and recreation center.

The longtime festival raises money for charities that work to end child abuse and domestic violence, and it plans to continue supporting many of the same 50 organizations that have come to receive grants from festival proceeds year after year.

In its place next year, Naperville residents can celebrate the Fourth in town with a new event called The Naperville Salute, planned by Naperville Responds for Veterans.

The Salute is set for July 3 and 4, featuring local bands, a Taste of Naperville, children's activities and a large fireworks show.

Carol Stream property tax

Carol Stream trustees approved the first municipal property tax in decades to make up for lost sales tax revenue. The new funding source also will help pay for rising police pension costs and a five-year infrastructure plan.

The $3.8 million levy adopted by trustees will cost the owner of a home worth $231,400, the average in Carol Stream, $232 annually in property taxes to the village, starting in May 2020.

Some opponents questioned whether the village had done all the belt-tightening it needed to avoid a tax. But trustees called the tax a last resort.

DuPage regulates adult businesses

Adult businesses operating in unincorporated DuPage must go through a licensing process after county board members in June approved an ordinance designed to minimize the "negative secondary effects" of sexually oriented businesses.

The vote on the adult business ordinance came more than a year after residents started raising concerns about Hot Shots Photography Studio near Wheaton.

DuPage eventually filed a lawsuit claiming the establishment was operating as an adult business at a site that violated zoning restrictions. To end the litigation, Hot Shots has agreed to leave the space it leased by Sept. 11.

County officials said the Hot Shots case underscores why DuPage needs a licensing program.

By law, DuPage can't ban adult businesses because it lacks home-rule power, but it can restrict where they are located.

While the ordinance didn't ban adult businesses, officials said the licensing program makes sure they are operating in a responsible manner.

Adult businesses now are required to get a license and renew it each year. The process includes annual inspections and background checks of the owners and employees. Adult entertainers who perform at a DuPage establishment are required to get an adult entertainer license.

Big Boy draws big crowds to West Chicago

When the world's largest steam engine stopped in West Chicago in July, the crowds of people wanting to see it kept coming and coming and coming.

An estimated 45,000 people visited Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 during the four days it spent in the city as part of its "Great Race Across the Midwest." The event was a rare opportunity for people to get an up-close look at the 600-ton locomotive.

The engine is rich with history. It was one of 25 Big Boy locomotives commissioned in the 1940s to haul heavy tonnage and handle steep terrain between Ogden, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. No. 4014 traveled more than 1 million miles during an 18-year career before making its last run in 1959.

After being out of commission for 60 years, the locomotive was brought back to life by Union Pacific during a restoration that took about 2½ years.

West Chicago initially had been preparing for about 2,000 people to visit the train each day. But soon after the train arrived, city officials guessed there would be far more visitors than anticipated. They were right.

'Jeopardy!' champ

His nearly historic run on "Jeopardy!" ended in June but gained new life when the show's Tournament of Champions began in November.

He picks his bets to match significant numbers in his life and is known to have a winning strategy with a quick buzzer-finger. Who is this phenom who excited the viewing audience for much of the past year?

The answer: Who is Naperville's own "Jeopardy James," the 2019 Tournament of Champions winner James Holzhauer.

Holzhauer almost made "Jeopardy!" history this spring, but lost in June to Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher after he had won 32 games in a row and amassed nearly $2.5 million.

He's a Naperville North High School alum with family, including his brother Ian, still living in town.

And when he won the tournament Nov. 15 over Boettcher and contestant Francois Barcomb, he captured third place in prize money in the show's history, behind only two players: Brad Rutter at $4,688,436 and Ken Jennings at $3,370,700.

Holzhauer now is scheduled to appear in a Greatest of All Time tournament on ABC in January along with Rutter and Jennings.

  Itasca residents packed a gymnasium to protest plans to convert a hotel into a drug and alcohol treatment facility. John Starks/
Lake Park head football coach Chris Roll was removed from his coaching post amid two controversies that rocked the Roselle school. Daily Herald file photo
  Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials attracted scorn from some and praise from others when they disinvited children's book author Robin Stevenson from speaking based largely on her book's LGBTQ content. Joe Lewnard/
Host Alex Trebek bids farewell to Naperville native James Holzhauer after the player lost on "Jeopardy!" Holzhauer had won 32 straight games and $2,462,216. Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc.
  Hundreds stood in line for a chance to purchase items at the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago, which closed. John Starks/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.