City Council is poised to require all resale and consignment shops to obtain a special use permit before opening in any zoning district in the City. Under current law, such shops are treated as retail establishments and, provided they occupy less than 7,500 square feet, may open in certain zones without a special permit.

While the effect of the proposed law is clouded by an amendment passed on Jan. 11, the intent of the Council, based upon a request for clarification by City Attorney Grant Farrar, appears to be that all resale establishments require a special use permit regardless of location, and all consignment shops will be included within the definition of resale establishment.

The ordinance seeks to help correct the problem caused by donations sitting outside thrift stores like the Salvation Army shop at Kedzie Street and Chicago Avenue. Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said clothing and materials dropped off at thrift shops become unsightly and are strewn across the sidewalk as people pick through them.

Ald. Rainey referred to shops on Howard Street, while Ald. Wynne spoke about the Salvation Army store, though she said there had been an effort at improvement there. Both aldermen acknowledged the positive aspects of thrift shops, including the need for inexpensive goods, particularly in difficult economic times, recycling of used goods, and less trash for the landfill. These positives, they said, were not enough to allow such shops to open in any retail district.

City Zoning Administrator Bill Dunkley explained the rationale for the proposed changes. “Resale shops do not have regular delivery times or set times for people to make drop offs; therefore many times items are left at the entryways or out in the open alongside the building which results in an unsightly situation and can also be noisy for the neighbors depending on what time drop offs or deliveries are made,” he said. The resulting “greater impact on the surrounding property owners” led to the staff’s decision, he said, to create a new zoning category for resale establishments.

Even earlier, during Plan Commission meetings, Evanston resident Andrew McGonigle spoke up on behalf of small businesses. Requiring a special use would place an “undo hardship on little stores that have minimal profit margins,” he said. As a result, the Plan Commission decided to recommend limiting the special use requirement to resale shops greater than 5,000 square feet (including storage areas) and exempting consignment shops.

When the proposed ordinance was considered on Dec. 14, Aldermen Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, both questioned the 5,000 square foot threshold. Ald. Rainey called the exemption for consignment shops “confusing.” A revised ordinance was presented to City Council on Jan. 11, defining “consignment shop” and retaining the 5,000-square-foot threshhold.

 Ald. Rainey apparently was not satisfied with the changes. Citing the Howard Street corridor, which she said is “inundated” with resale shops that leave mattresses on the sidewalk and sell donated good off the back of Salvation Army trucks in the alley, she said, “I don’t think there should be a limit. All resale should be a special use.” She proposed an amendment eliminating the 5,000-square-foot threshold and the distinction between consignment shops and thrift shops.

 Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, hesitated, saying the problems the zoning change sought to change were “things that shouldn’t be happening.” He said he was worried that the City would be “punishing everyone for the misdeeds of a few” by forcing them to go through a time-consuming and often expensive special-use process.

Ald. Rainey countered that the special-use process does not have to be expensive. “Plus, thrift shops beget thrift shops,” she added. “They … pose different issues than a regular retail shop, and I think they should be treated differently.” Again referring to Howard Street, she said redeveloping business areas that are underdeveloped should be the goal.

 Ald. Rainey’s amendment passed 5-0. Mr. Farrar, asking for clarification, was told the intent of the amendment was to eliminate the square footage threshold and to include all consignment shops within the definition of “resale establishments.” Hearing of the amendments, Mr. McGonigle said, “That’s a shame.”

Former Alderman and land use attorney Stephen Engelman said he disagreed with Ald. Rainey’s assessment of the special use process. “There is a variety of steps that you have to go through to get a special use permit,” he said. An application to the City is required, and the application requires the gathering of information showing that standards regarding impact to the neighborhood and nearby businesses are satisfied.

After the application is processed, which generally takes at least two weeks, the applicant must appear before the Plan Commission or the Zoning Board of Appeals. After a transcript of that appearance has been prepared, then an applicant must go before the Planning and Development Committee, and if that committee approves go before the City Council. “At a very minimum, it’s a two month process, but in reality it’s at least three months and can be significantly longer” if the Council is occupied with other time-consuming issues such as the downtown Tower, explained Mr. Engelman.

The process can be a real impediment to starting a new business, “especially if a lease is going to be contingent on your getting a special use permit. What landlord is going to be willing to wait?” said Mr. Engelman. Attorneys’ fees, another concern of small businesses in obtaining special use permits, were not discussed.

Addressing the City’s claim that the impetus behind the ordinance was donated good strewn across the sidewalk, Mr. Engelman said, “The City Council often uses zoning ordinances to correct ills that have nothing to do with zoning. Here, they are using a zoning ordinance to protect against litter.”

Caitlin Stephenson, the owner of Factory Vintage Clothing at 1043 Chicago Ave., said, “Evanston does not like small businesses. Evanston is not helpful to the small business person,” she said. She said that she was not surprised that the City would “do something like that.”

City Council could vote on the amendment on Jan. 25. The current definition, if not amended, could include used book stores or used record stores if they accept donations or goods on consignment, though it specifically excludes “businesses that sell primarily cares, antiques and/or artwork.”