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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 03:12 am

Peace begins on Hazel Lane

Hope Institute and its neighbors are talking. There’s hope for the world.

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Hazel Lane residents, shown here gathered to meet a photographer in 2005, have a decade-old dispute with Hope Institute, claiming the school’s traffic makes their street unsafe.

I now believe there will be peace in the Middle East. I also believe that the Illinois legislature will someday ratify a budget before the fiscal year ends, and Dick Cheney will appear on Meet the Press to express his admiration for Barack Obama. Heck, I even believe that my two children will stop tattling on each other.

Why have I suddenly become such a cockeyed optimist? Because Hope Institute for Families and Children (formerly known as the Hope School) and its neighbors on Hazel Lane have finally started talking — peacefully.

Unless you’ve been following this sordid saga, you can’t possibly appreciate the magnitude of this breakthrough. Illinois Times has been covering the feud between Hope — a nonprofit residential and educational facility for children with developmental disabilities — and the 17 homeowners on Hazel Lane for years [see “Road to court,” IT, June 9, 2005]; the bitterness between these two parties, however, dates back more than a decade. It has spawned lawsuits and a mountain of hard feelings.

What’s the big conflict? The residents of Hazel Lane — which dead-ends into Hope’s 25-acre campus — don’t want the traffic of the school’s 470 employees plus assorted service vehicles going up and down their street. Sure, it was no big deal back in the 1960s, when Hope School was a cottage housing 16 handicapped children. But now, Hope houses 100 kids and has expanded its mission to include services to 500 autistic youth.

So here’s the problem: While Hope and its payroll have mushroomed, Hazel Lane hasn’t changed a bit. I couldn’t comprehend how tiny this street was until I went there myself. A narrow two-lane, shoulder-less road bordered by deep ditches, it’s the kind of passageway that forces you to grip your steering wheel and say a prayer if you happen to meet an oncoming SUV. And that’s on a dry day. Imagine rain. Imagine ice and snow. Imagine shift workers leaving Hope (a 24-hour facility) late at night.

Hazel Laners thought their problem was solved in 2004 when the city of Springfield built Hope a much wider access road on East Hazel Dell at a cost of more than $200,000. Hope officials, however, not only continued traveling on Hazel Lane; they didn’t erect signs directing vendors to the new entranceway or even change the school address until 2006, when a federal court ordered them to do so.

The controversy hasn’t brought out the best in either party. Hazel Lane homeowners watch for Hope vehicles, taking snapshots of license plates and call the school to complain. Hope, which has deep pockets and a roster loaded with politically powerful names (Julie Cellini, Robert Kjellander, Helen Tolan, Nancy DeMarco, Sergio Pecori . . . you get the idea) has filed lawsuits against Woodside Township’s road commissioner, who erected a push-open gate across Hazel Lane where it dead-ends into a Hope parking lot.

Recently, representatives of both sides, including Hope's Mark Schmidt and Hazel Lane’s Ron Ettinger began talks to find a compromise.

School officials recently persuaded the city of Springfield to consider forcibly annexing Hazel Lane and nearby Rita Road. The ordinance, Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards tells me, is doomed (and he should know, since the mess would fall within his ward). But an amazing thing happened on May 19, immediately after the ordinance’s first reading, when Hope folk and Hazel Laners bumped into each other in the hallway outside of the council chamber: People from both sides actually talked. Face to face. Human to human. In a civilized tone.

“Feelings and facts were aired on both sides. And then, after waiting so long, we finally achieved a beginning of the direct dialogue we have long sought,” Pat McLaughlin, one of the most outspoken Hazel Lane residents wrote in an e-mail the next morning. That e-mail — vetted by participants and attorneys on both sides, who expressly or tacitly agreed that the document could be cc’d to me (of all people) — announced that the two warring factions had agreed to a real meeting. “All the past animosity is to be left at the door, and the group will strive to reach a new understanding and amicable agreement to get along with each other,” McLaughlin wrote. As I read it, my only thought was: I’m so glad I’m sitting down.

The meeting took place this past Monday and resulted in the two parties requesting that the city council send the annexation ordinance back to committee, in order to give Hope and Hazel Lane a chance to get along. I found out that the meeting took place at Hope’s Noll Medical Pavilion, lasted more than an hour, and included cookies and soft drinks. I couldn’t pry significant details out of either side.

When I interviewed Hope’s communications director, Mark Schmidt, Tuesday night, he was smiling.

“We found areas of common ground and we want to explore those areas and see what develops,” said.

Ron Ettinger, from Hazel Lane, echoed Schmidt. “We’ve taken the first step, and we’re cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Me — I’m giddy. Hope and Hazel are talking. Next up: Mideast peace.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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