When I heard about the court suit against the owner of one of two tourist sites in Fox River Grove, I could do nothing but figuratively scratch my head.
There are pretty much only two reasons that people would come to Fox River Grove.
The Norge Ski Jump is, of course, the one that draws the most visitors. That’s where I took the photo on the masthead of McHenry County Blog.
The second reason is the Bettendrof Castle that can be seen from Route 14.
I remember when it was promoted as a honeymoon destination.
I am certain that a tourist outreach effort on Fox River Grove’s behalf could draw visitors who might be induced to spend money elsewhere.
There used to be a third reason, the Fox River Grove Picnic Grove.
Fox River Grove officials didn’t tear it down and turn it into a parking lot. It turned into an upscale neighborhood.
But no longer is the area the biker guy’s son’s “Dreamy land,” as his father explained his son’s description of it in the re-zoning hearing.
So if FRG wanted to draw tourists, its got the ski jump and the castle.
Those who don’t want the castle in their neighborhood were, in all likelihood, not even residents of the area when construction started.
It was 1931 when Teddy Bettendorf started his Vienden Castle, named after a Luxembourg town. He worked on it until his death in 1967.
How important is the castle?
Last September, the McHenry County Historical Society designated it an historic site.
The time to stop it is long gone.
Now neighbors, in a classic, but oh so belated NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) effort convinced “city hall” to go after the Castle’s owner.
In any event, the Village attorney filed suit against current owner Michael Strohl in August. Strohl bought the property in 1985.
It’s zoned residential. Seven lots.
Not enough room for a joust, but a lot of property. Enough for a drawbridge, moat and wishing well.
The only sign on the property says, “Not Open to the Public.”
(I think it should be. I’d love to tour it, but the Village Board, figuring out there are more voters in the neighborhood that in the castle, by their actions apparently don’t agree.)
People have asked for tours and Mr. Strohl has given them without charge, according to a decision handed down by Judge Micheal Feetterer today.
This case started when Mr. Strohl agreed to a McHenry County Historical Society request to allow a group of senior citizens to tour his castle.
The village issued a one-day overweight permit to allow a bus to reach the property.
The bus unloaded the seniors and the bus left.
That’s what neighbors Diane Durso and Theodore Johnson testified.
The tour started at 9 AM. The bus returned to pick up its passengers at about 10.
That’s when the castle’s owner was issued a “Non-Traffic Complaint and Notice to Appear” for operating a “home occupation” from a residence without first obtaining “a special use permit.”
Ironically, the village allows home occupations, but has some restrictions:
- No signs indicating that the home or accessory building are being used for any purpose other than a residence.
- No activity or display outside that will indicate there is any utilization of the property but for a residence.
- No more than two people may engage in the home occupation.
- No external alterations may be made to the residence that would diminish the residential character of the buildings located there.
- All activities shall be inside.
- The traffic level on the street must not be increased because of the home business.
- No more than 25% of the floor space or 500 square feet may be allocated to the business use.
- No hazards may exist that would not be in an ordinary home.
- The resident must be in compliance with all other ordinances.
- Only one home occupation is allowed.
(Sounds as if people in FRG wouldn’t be allowed to run two internet businesses, even if only one computer were used.)
Since the tour was outside, Judge Feetterer observed, if he held it was a home occupation, a special use permit would have been required.
But that was not his finding.
The Judge notes FRG has no definition of “occupation” in its ordinance. He emphasizes this part of Black’s Law Dictionary: “…a person’s usual or principal work or business.”
The decision then points out that Mr. Strohl didn’t charge the tour group members nor had he ever don’t so before.
He even cites that a complaining neighbor, Diana Durso, a 424 Concord Street resident since 1994, that the August tour bus was the only one she had ever seen.
That was “de minimus” and not indicative of a home occupation or business being operated on the property, the Judge said.
“Not guilty,” ruled the Court.
Before the case started, Mr. Srtohl asked permission to host
- scheduled tours
- dinners for groups and businesses
- weddings and receptions
- family reunions
- corporate events
- local government events
- charitable functions
- political fundraisers
- school field trips
But he withdrew that application.
Judge Feetterer notes that nothing in the zoning ordinance limits the number of people who can be invited to one’s home.
And doing so is consistent with residential use.
Nothing in the zoning ordinance about giving the grand tour of ones home or property either.
And the Village’s complaint about the people arriving in a bus apparently had the Judge scratching his head.
After all, the Village issued an overweight permit for the day in question.
He points out that parking vehicles on one’s property or in front of neighbors is “consistent with property zoned residential.”
(If this is beginning to sound like the Judge is having a successful Whack a Mole game at Fox River Grove’s expense, your interpretation parallels mine.)
The judge surmised that the Historical Society bus tour was only the second in 17 years of Mr. Strohl’s ownership.
That merited a second “Not Guilty.”
Fox River Grove seems to have won only one point.
Strohl sought to invoke the Illinois Citizen Participation Act as a defense mechanism. That was not allowed.
The attorney playing the role of Knight in Shining Armor in the case was Woodstock’s Robert T. Hanlon.