Barrington Hills horse farm suit alleges political favoritism

  • Oakwood Farms, as seen from Bateman Road in Barrington Hills. A new lawsuit has been filed accusing village officials of taking part in a "pay to play" scheme to make the commercial boarding of up to 60 horses there legal.

      Oakwood Farms, as seen from Bateman Road in Barrington Hills. A new lawsuit has been filed accusing village officials of taking part in a "pay to play" scheme to make the commercial boarding of up to 60 horses there legal. Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

  • Oakwood Farms, as seen from Bateman Road in Barrington Hills. A new lawsuit has been filed accusing village officials of taking part in a "pay to play" scheme to make the commercial boarding of up to 60 horses there legal.

      Oakwood Farms, as seen from Bateman Road in Barrington Hills. A new lawsuit has been filed accusing village officials of taking part in a "pay to play" scheme to make the commercial boarding of up to 60 horses there legal. Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted8/12/2011 5:42 AM

A lawsuit brought by two Barrington Hills residents to stop their neighbors' commercial horse boarding operation has been expanded to accuse village officials of political favoritism.

James Drury and Michael McLaughlin do not name any village officials as defendants in the suit, which is aimed at Benjamin and Cathleen LeCompte, owners of the horse boarding operation at Oakwood Farms.

 

But they argue that the LeComptes donated money to the campaigns of three trustees who are aligned with Village President Robert Abboud, and claim the village board is bending over backward to find a way the business can be legally conducted.

Barrington Hills Village President Robert Abboud denies any favoritism has taken place, and said if Drury and McLaughlin believe the village has done anything illegal they should file a complaint with the Illinois attorney general's office.

The lawsuit against Oakwood Farms was filed in July. The farm has a barn, built in 2006, big enough to house 60 horses. The farm has 110 acres of riding space alone, but the barn was built toward the property line with Drury, who can readily see it.

Drury said a commercial operation of that size disrupts the neighborhood, and people who otherwise have no business in the noncommercial village are driving down his road, filling up the gravel parking lot at Oakwood Farms on weekends and crossing the road to pet his own horses.

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"As my neighbor says, we're going to become the horse motel for all the other communities in the Chicago area," Drury said. "(Oakwood Farms) is totally undermining our residential zoning code."

The LeComptes first argued that their boarding operation should be permitted as an agricultural use of their land, but the village government did not agree. The village's decision was upheld recently by the Illinois Appellate Court.

The village then rejected the idea that the business could be classed as a home occupation business. But since then, LeCompte has adjusted the long hours of the boarding operation down to 8 a.m.-8 p.m., bringing it more in line with the requirements of a home occupation business.

Now, the village board is more amenable to the idea, going so far as to write the first draft of a horse-boarding ordinance that would permit Oakwood Farms to continue.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Drury thinks it's ridiculous that 60 boarded horses could be construed as a home-occupied business. He points out the basic premise of a home occupation business is that it is indistinguishable to its neighbors from a regular residential use -- like a piano teacher who gives lessons in his or her home.

Drury alleges the village is not enforcing its cease-and-desist order against the horse boarding business for politically motivated reasons.

Moreover, Drury believes the village board's new interest in going along with the home-occupied business idea was prompted by the LeComptes' $15,000 donation to trustee candidates Joe Messer, Karen Selman and Patty Meroni -- all allied with Abboud and all elected in April.

Drury also believes that the LeComptes intended to give the donations under the table, because Messer, Selman and Meroni received a warning from the State Board of Elections for failing to identify Benjamin LeCompte as the original source of $5,000 donations they each deposited in their election committee fund last winter.

By the time of the election board hearing, the three candidates had already admitted a clerical error and returned the money to LeCompte.

LeCompte later made the $15,000 donation to the candidates' Save 5 Acres slate, not to the individual candidates.

Abboud, meanwhile, said the village hasn't enforced its long-standing order against Oakwood Farms because of the village's practice of not immediately imposing fines or penalties before a party has had its case fully heard.

He said an extensive study has been conducted to determine the impact of Oakwood Farms' operation and those of other farms in the village where commercial boarding takes place.

No extraordinary disruptions to neighbors' peace and quiet were found, he said.

"Everyone has an impact on their neighbor," Abboud said. "It's never zero."

LeCompte, meanwhile, said the campaign donations were prompted not by his business, but by the thought he might be supporting the village's equestrian community by supporting three equestrians. He said he never discussed getting help for his business with any of them.

LeCompte also donated $5,000 to the independent candidate and former plan commission Chairman David Stieper, since Stieper also supports the equestrian community, he said.

Stieper, who filed his own donation correctly and was not censured by the State Board of Elections, said LeCompte did not ask him for any favors in connection with the donation.

Trustee Harold "Skip" Gianopulos, who was the only member of the Common Sense Party slate to be elected in April, said he disagrees with the interpretation of the home occupation ordinance the rest of the board is leaning toward.

He finds it a stretch that Oakwood Farms would qualify for such a definition.

And if there was a political motivation for the village board's support of Oakwood Farms, it could be to find favor with the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, whose membership is strengthened by the horse boarding operation, Gianopulos said.

On the other hand, he said the village board has not been abusing its authority to meet in closed session to discuss Oakwood Farms issues. Gianopulos also said he trusts the legal advice the village board has been receiving.

What happens now?

Gianopulos said he does not expect a horse boarding ordinance to be "rushed through" in the next few weeks.

After an upcoming meeting Aug. 22 in which members of the village board and zoning board will discuss it, the zoning board will hold a public hearing before the ordinance goes any further.

Stieper and former zoning board Chairman Jonathan Knight are calling on the board to hold off on passing the ordinance until the lawsuit has run its course. Both political adversaries of Abboud, they argue the village board would, at best, create the appearance of a conflict of interest by acting before the lawsuit is heard.

They say their worst fear is that an ordinance would retroactively render Drury and McLaughlin's case moot.

Gianopulos said he found Stieper's legal argument compelling that Knight should have been allowed to attend last week's meeting as the former chair of the zoning board and thus a party to the case.

Drury said he expects the next hearing on his and McLaughlin's lawsuit to take place later this month.

Abboud, however, said that even if the village were named as a defendant in the suit -- which it hasn't -- it could still "walk and chew gum at the same time." He said there's no reason why the business of government should have to be put on hold for a private lawsuit.