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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 10:31 pm

Route of dispute

Hope Institute files suit again in long-running row with neighbors

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Hazel Lane residents, shown here gathered to meet a photographer in 2005, say Hope School traffic made their street unsafe.
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

When it comes right down to it, the much-publicized lawsuit filed this week by noted attorney Bill Roberts on behalf of The Hope Institute is about three orange traffic cones. Set along the spot where Hazel Lane abuts a Hope School parking lot, these cones theoretically posed “a severe danger to the health and welfare of the children we serve,” says Hope spokesman Mark Schmidt.

Obviously, it takes more than a trio of rubber cones to spark litigation. The dispute between Hope and its neighbors on Hazel Lane dates back decades, and both sides have resorted to keeping logs, snapping allegedly incriminating pictures, hiring attorneys, firing off strongly-worded letters and sending a flurry of Freedom of Information requests. This lawsuit filed by Hope Nov. 17 is the second one that the school for severely disabled children has filed against the owner of the three cones, Woodside Township, and its road commissioner, Don Duffy.

The issue in dispute is the use of Hazel Lane as a means of getting to and from Hope Institute, which occupies 25 acres of land bordering Lake Springfield leased from the city of Springfield for the token fee of $2,500 per year. Hazel Lane — a narrow road with no curbs or shoulders, lined with ditches as deep as four feet — dead-ends into a Hope Institute parking lot. The lane is maintained by Woodside Township.

When the facility originally known as Hope School was established in the early 1960s, it housed only 10 children, and Hazel Lane could easily handle the school’s traffic. As the school grew, however — now serving 125 children and staffed by about 500 employees — the Hazel Lane residents began to complain about the constant parade of staff vehicles, school buses and delivery trucks up and down their narrow road.

In January 2004, a new, wider access road off East Hazel Dell to Hope was built by the city of Springfield at a cost of more than $200,000. Despite the new entrance way, some Hope school officials — as well as some employees, most delivery trucks and even job applicants — continued using the Hazel Lane route. In fact, school officials didn’t change the campus address from 50 Hazel Lane to 15 Hazel Dell until March 2006, more than two years after the new access road was built.

The address change was part of a settlement agreement hammered out by federal magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore, in an attempt to resolve the first lawsuit Hope filed against Woodside Township and Duffy [see “Road to court,” June 9, 2005]. The same settlement agreement obliged Hope to instruct staff and vendors to use the new, wider entrance, and to erect signs alerting motorists to enter Hope via Hazel Dell instead of Hazel Lane. Hope officials complied with those requirements.

One sticking point remains: In 2004, soon after the new road opened, Duffy installed a gate at the end of Hazel Lane, in an effort to change the traffic pattern. Under the settlement, Duffy removed its gate and Hope replaced it with another funded by $10,000 from Woodside Township. The settlement said Duffy could not reinstall a gate “or other barrier . . . for the purpose of obstructing or impeding traffic to the Hope School campus” unless the federal court found a “material breach” of the agreement.

And that’s where the three orange cones come in. They made a brief appearance after a heavy snowfall last December, when a Woodside snowplow left what Schmidt describes as “a three-foot-tall pile of snow” at the place where Hazel Lane joins the Hope parking lot. The township crew placed the cones to alert motorists to the treacherous conditions. Neighbors dispute Schmidt’s description, and say the snow pile was low enough to be easily crossed by cars. Still, both parties ended up back in front of Cudmore for mediation in January of this year.

Hazel Lane residents insist they believed everything had been amicably settled until reporters suddenly started calling on Nov. 17, asking about Hope’s latest litigation. Filed this time in the Seventh Circuit Court, Hope’s suit seeks to permanently enjoin Woodside from impeding traffic to the Hope campus as long as it abides by the settlement agreement.

Duffy declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Woodside’s attorney, Thomas Wilson, said his response will be filed in court. Schmidt, who made the rounds of every media outlet in Springfield to announce the filing of the lawsuit, admits that the school operated safely with only one entrance for more than four decades, but says Hope has shifted its focus to “more medically fragile” children in the past five years. He also admits that the three orange cones could have been easily moved in case of emergency, but says it was necessary to clarify the gate situation before the onset of snowy weather.

“Our board felt very strongly that because of our responsibilities to the children here, we couldn’t go into another winter with this thing hanging over everyone’s heads,” he says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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