Feds investigating whether Itasca broke anti-discrimination laws in Haymarket decision

  • After a rally in Usher Park, a large crowd walked through downtown Itasca in 2019 in opposition to a proposed drug and alcohol treatment facility.

    After a rally in Usher Park, a large crowd walked through downtown Itasca in 2019 in opposition to a proposed drug and alcohol treatment facility. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Chicago-based Haymarket Center owns the former Holiday Inn in Itasca. The nonprofit group sought to turn the hotel into a treatment facility for people with substance-use disorders.

    Chicago-based Haymarket Center owns the former Holiday Inn in Itasca. The nonprofit group sought to turn the hotel into a treatment facility for people with substance-use disorders. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Pruyn, Itasca mayor

    Jeff Pruyn, Itasca mayor Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 12/2/2021 8:06 PM

Just weeks after Itasca overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for an addiction treatment center, federal prosecutors have launched an investigation into whether the village violated anti-discrimination laws.

A copy of a letter from Chicago-based U.S. Attorney John Lausch was released Thursday afternoon by the village on its website.

 

The letter, dated Nov. 24, came less than a month after Itasca trustees unanimously rejected Haymarket Center's request to turn a former hotel into a 240-bed treatment center for people with substance use disorders.

In the letter, Lausch informs Itasca officials his office has initiated an investigation of the village for compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Among other things, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including individuals with substance use disorder," Lausch wrote.

Lausch said the village has until Dec. 24 to turn over a trove of documents related to Haymarket's zoning application. The records sought by federal investigators include:

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• All communications and documents related to the village's 2019 decision to classify the Haymarket project as a planned development during the zoning proceedings rather than a health care facility.

• All communications related to Haymarket between village representatives and the Itasca Fire Protection District or Itasca Elementary District 10.

• All internal communications of the village and documents created by the village related to the Haymarket project.

• All communications and documentation between the village and a spokeswoman related to the project.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office confirmed the letter was sent to the village but declined to comment.

Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn issued a written statement on Thursday in response to the federal inquiry. The village is complying with the request for information, Pruyn said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Throughout the entire Haymarket Special Use Permit application process, with direction from Village's legal counsel, members of the Village staff, Plan Commission, and Board have done everything possible to ensure a fair proceeding," Pruyn said in the statement.

The probe does not come as a surprise, Pruyn said.

On Oct. 26, "during its final appearance before our village, Haymarket referenced the Act on its last presentation slide -- seven days before the Board took a vote," the mayor said.

A spokeswoman for Itasca said village officials won't be commenting further.

When asked for comment, Haymarket leaders released a brief statement and directed any other questions to the U.S. attorney's office.

"We welcome an investigation," Haymarket President and CEO Dan Lustig said.

The issue of ADA compliance was raised in a June 2020 letter to village attorneys from Access Living, a Chicago-based advocacy group for people with disabilities.

Two attorneys for the group said Haymarket should have been allowed to seek a special-use permit to operate as a health care facility.

Instead, Itasca officials deemed the project to be a planned development application, arguing the proposed use of the property represented a mixed use of residential and medical.

"Because the property is the equivalent of a hospital under the Zoning Ordinance, by forcing Haymarket to file as a Planned Development, rather than as a Healthcare Facility, the Village is treating people with substance use and mental health conditions in a different, more onerous and costly manner than those who require regular hospital care (or a maternity home, or a home for unwed mothers, etc.)," the Access Living letter stated. "This is the essence of discriminatory treatment."

Haymarket initially filed its application in July 2019 and tried for months to get village approval. But hundreds of opponents packed school gymnasiums when the village's plan commission started hosting public hearings in October 2019. Opponents argued that Itasca, a town of less than 10,000, lacks the infrastructure to support a treatment center that would serve more than 4,700 patients a year.

Then the process was put on hold. First, it was because of a lawsuit Haymarket filed against the village that was ultimately dismissed. Then it was because of state-imposed restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Haymarket bought the former hotel building during that period.

The public hearings resumed in October 2020. It wasn't until this September that the plan commission unanimously recommended village trustees reject Haymarket's proposal.

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