'Bullying, threatening' critics led South Barrington park board to cancel land deal, officials say
After weeks of public pressure that included what one commissioner called "ludicrous allegations" and "malicious threats," the South Barrington Park District board has decided not to sell 34 acres of undeveloped land to a religious group.
Citing that behavior, Commissioner Shelby Elias resigned before the meeting and missed the board's 4-0 vote to cancel the contract with Maywood-based Fourth Avenue Gospel Building Inc.
Fourth Avenue is a nonprofit operation that's owned and operated by a local congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
Other commissioners also criticized the actions of the plan's foes, especially emails sent to the board members.
Board President Pete Perisin accused the plan's critics of "bullying, threatening and intimidating" commissioners.
"They were not pleasant," Perisin said. "They were personal. They were vindictive. They definitely crossed the line."
Commissioner Shazia Khan agreed.
"The lack of respect and civility that has been displayed by friends and neighbors is surprising and saddening," Khan said.
Fourth Avenue intended to build a house of worship and a school on the land, which is south of where Bartlett Road and Route 59 meet.
In a statement issued Thursday, Fourth Avenue's Russell McAbery said the group is disappointed the park district breached its agreement to sell the land.
McAbery also accused opponents of the group's plans of religious bigotry and called their actions "shameful."
Park district voters in November approved holding an auction to unload the property, which sometimes is called "Area N." Fourth Avenue Gospel Building was the lone bidder, offering about $1.7 million.
District officials said funds from the sale would go to improving local parks.
Opponents - including many residents of the nearby Woods of South Barrington development - demonstrated against the deal at park district headquarters last month. They objected to the proposed use of the land and some of the church's practices, including a doctrine of separation that forbids eating or drinking with nonmembers.
Some people also alleged district officials weren't as transparent as they could have been when it came to the referendum, the auction and the proposed sale.
Perisin insisted the board and administrators acted properly. He said he voted to cancel the sale because the board needs to listen to the community when making decisions.
As for improving local parks, officials will have to get those funds from other sources, Perisin said - perhaps sponsorships.
Other fundraising efforts could include a property tax increase, Executive Director Jay Morgan said.
With the sale scrapped, the future of the property at Bartlett Road and Route 59 is uncertain. The November referendum allowed the park district to hold three auctions in a year, Morgan has said.
If officials opt for another auction, Perisin said, officials will "go overboard" promoting it.