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Normal Town Council member says balance between freedom and regulation is tricky

Normal Town Council member Kevin McCarthy.
Jeffrey Smudde
WGLT file
Normal Town Council member Kevin McCarthy.

The senior member of the Normal Town Council says it's reasonable that revisions to the town's sign ordinance will attract some heat, noting there are competing interests to balance.

"Some people will interpret that as an infringement on free speech. Some people will interpret that as an infringement on the ability to do commerce. And yet others will see that as reasonable to want an attractive and quality place to live," said Kevin McCarthy.

Recent court rulings have prompted revisions that could include fewer limits on sign content and less strict time limits to display signs. McCarthy urged people to take part in the public input process.

“I'll just remind everybody that, on the political side, the rules limiting political signs and advertisements, how long they can be out and the like, that applies to everybody universally. That's not for one party or the other. I think that's been a little bit misconstrued,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy said he was not eager to let his own opinions out in advance of the public input process.

“I have ideas and thoughts on this. But I encourage everybody (to) let us hear your voices. If there are model ordinances you've seen in other communities, please share those with us if you think that there's a better a better mousetrap out there for us to build. I'm really interested in that feedback process,” said McCarthy, who spoke to WGLT during a periodic series of interview WGLT does with mayors and city managers.

He said he’s certain that no matter what the council decides, some people will be unhappy because the council usually tries to take a middle ground.

The town has not strictly enforced the time limits on the display of temporary signs that are in the current ordinance, and probably doesn't have the staff power to do so in the future. So, should there be any time limits if enforcement is not regular?

“Yeah, the all-or-none argument ... I think in some cases, that might be valid. I think in other cases, maybe not. Do we really care if Mayor Koos’ 4’x’4’ sign is out on day 360 after the election on Veterans Parkway? I think we do. I certainly think his opponents would care,” said McCarthy.

Another option is to enforce on a complaint basis and rely on the public to start that process.

“Again, I think it's a challenging topic, but I'm glad we're collecting a lot of feedback to this point,” said McCarthy.

On another topic, he said the recent furor over the proposed Weldon Reserve addition to the Wintergreen subdivision may have been unavoidable. The council approved the addition of a mix of single-family homes and duplexes. McCarthy said for those concerned about the effect of adding new $300,000 homes to an area where homes typically start at $500,000, the historical pattern is home values rise.

"I don't know that we're going to get everybody to be happy in this situation. I think that's the long and the short of it," said McCarthy.

He said there was a full spectrum of people in the Wintergreen neighborhood, from people not interested at all to those who think the addition is a very bad thing.

During a council meeting, council member Stan Nord voiced concern about the safety of children if the addition went through. McCarthy said he doesn't buy it.

“Obviously, the vast majority of the streets in town are not cul-de-sacs and there isn't a plethora of daily cars endangering the lives of kids. I think that's a little bit of a straw man argument, that kids are inherently in danger if they don't live on cul-de-sacs," said McCarthy.

Very few additions to subdivisions have aroused such a spirited discussion as Wintergreen 3, now Weldon Reserve. State Sen. Jason Barickman has speculated that perhaps the difference is because this project is infill, which has nearby neighbors and is not a green grass site. The Town of Normal has expressed a desire for more infill development projects, raising the question whether there will be an increase in resistance to such proposals.

McCarthy said he’s not sure whether the town should tweak the review process to make sure such discussions are orderly — for instance requiring developers to meet with neighbors to explain their plans and listen to their concerns.

“The town's role is to adopt a set of rules and then evaluate proposals based on code to ensure that they meet or have minor waivers to code if there's valid and responsible reasons for that. Nowhere in there is really to play arbiter between developer and existing property owners. That's never really been the intention or the purpose,” said McCarthy.

He said he encourages conversation between developers and those who live in existing developments, and that up front communication would be beneficial. But McCarthy held off on the idea of creating a requirement to communicate.

“Certainly there an opportunity, I suppose, to have a look at that. But again, how far down are we micromanaging what developers and development can do? There's a balance there,” he said. “When it's your property, you don't want us to micromanage you. And when it's somebody else’s property that you think is going to hurt your property, you want us to micromanage. That's always the tough situation the council finds itself in."

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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