By Michael Romain
Wednesday, Maywood – At a special meeting last week, the Village Board voted unanimously to pass a 180-day moratorium on the licensing of convenience stores and general merchandise retailers in Maywood.
The moratorium (the word originates from the Latin term morari, which means “to delay”), effectively puts a stop on the issuance of any new licenses to prospective convenience store proprietors and general merchandise retailers until the Village can create an additional set of regulations that adequately address what’s amounted to a very serious problem of late.
Residents have consistently complained about the loitering and nuisance crowds outside of various retailers in the Village and the drug paraphernalia sold inside of them. Residents have also complained about the fact that some of these stores in question are open twenty-four hours.
At the August 28, meeting convened specifically to discuss this problem and to vote on the moratorium, Sgt. Dennis Diaz walked to the public podium with a black plastic bag in tow. In the bag were purchases he was able to make while in full uniform at three stores that were picked at random (the convenience store on the 1000 block of 17th Avenue; the Citgo gas station on the corner of 8th and Roosevelt; and the Mobile gas station at 17th and Harrison).
Among the contents he presented to the Board were a pocket digital scale, which is often used to weigh narcotics; a glass pipe often used to smoke marijuana; a blunt cutter (which cuts blunts, or “cigar[s] that [are] hollowed out and filled with cannabis”); and Dorman sleeping pills, a popular barbiturate with drug dealers that’s often used to cut heroin. All of the items Diaz purchased are legal. The attendant who sold him the pocket digital scale even gave him a discount.
“If they sell this stuff to a police officer in full uniform […] who knows what they got behind the counter. If they sell it to me, imagine what’s going on there,” said Diaz.
Acting police chief, Commander Elijah Willis, added another layer of complication to the problem. “Even if we did get behind the counter, if [the paraphernalia and other possibly illegal substances are] in drawers, code and police can’t open those drawers. Otherwise, we’d have to get a search warrant or establish probable cause.”
Attorney Michael Jurusik said that the purpose of the moratorium would be to essentially revamp the Village’s zoning laws and business code to deal with these nuisance retailers.
“The tough challenge is how do you regulate the difference,” Jurusik said. “[For instance], pipes can be used for smoking tobacco and pipes can be used to smoke weed […] Everything the police bought, considered separately, is legal; but put it together and you have a problem.”
Another challenge the Board faces is ensuring that regulations intended to punish problematic retailers don’t also punish retailers that are relatively harmless. One instance that illustrates this difficult balancing act is the regulation of operating hours for retailers in Maywood.
One possible solution brought up for clamping down on twenty-four hour nuisance stores entailed making it expensive for a retailer to stay open after 11pm by introducing operating fees or prohibitive fines. However, this kind of blanket regulation would effectively punish retailers, such as the White Castle and the McDonald’s drive-thru, both on Roosevelt Road, which may still be legitimately selling merchandise late at night.
“We’re going to want to treat certain retailers that aren’t problematic different from others that are,” said Jurusik. “We need to make this as defensible and as comprehensive as possible […] We don’t want to create any issues for liability.”
Some of the most interesting solutions and considerations came during public comment. Resident Loretta Robinson suggested that the Village establish a hard number for how many retailers are allowed to setup in Maywood. “Let’s get rid of some of these convenient stores. Why don’t we think we on the lines of, ‘If one moves, that’s the only way another comes in,” she said.
“There’s a cigarette store in a strip mall in Forest Park,” said Lennel Grace. “A month later in so much time, the same individuals that run that convenient store are running the one on Roosevelt Road. I suspect it’s a method of dodging taxes[…] I gather there’s some rule that says, [you get a tax break if you own a business for several years]. So they close up and open for another several years.”
“The proximity of these stores […] a lot are on the same block or directly across the street from each other,” said Isiah Brandon. “The location of these stores is a problem as well. “Twenty four hours for a store is ridiculous and they’re causing problems, so we should increase the fees […] This reflects poorly on the image of the town.”
Many of the residents’ concerns flow into a much larger reservoir of issues that may have more to do with a cultural shift in Maywood than with any marked weakness in the business code or irresponsible employees.
The reasons for Maywood’s transformation from a homey bedroom community to a town that, in certain areas, resembles the West Side of Chicago, are complex and in many ways, impersonal. It’s a sobering reality to deal with, which made Mayor Perkins’s searching indictment ring tragically hollow.
“Can anyone answer for me how this store is open for twenty-four hours? Who gave them the permission to be open for twenty-four hours?” she said, referring to one store in particular that stays open all night.
“There are regulations with respect to hours in the business code,” said Village Manager Bill Barlow. “So any business closing earlier at 10, 11pm, was self-imposed.”
Barlow said that another obstacle to adequately dealing with nuisance stores is the fact that there is no definition in the Village’s business code defining precisely what is a “convenient store.”
And with respect to the lack of anything in the business code regulating hours of operation, Jurusik said this absence isn’t unique to Maywood. There are other towns that lack this regulation also (opening up the possibility that the lack of a definition for “convenient stores” in Maywood’s business code may not be unique to Maywood, either). “Your code isn’t ineffective,” Jurusik said, “retailers have just changed the way they operate.”
Trustee Audrey Jaycox said that those kinds of regulations, particularly the one limiting hours of operation, have historically not been necessary in Maywood, which is known for its status as a bedroom community. There was a time, Jaycox said, “when no business wanted to stay open that late.” Residents were typically indoors after 9pm.
Trustee Cheryl Ealey-Cross noted that the predominance of nuisance stores in the Village may have also been the result of a culture of laxity and complacency when it comes to enforcing those very same community values about which many longtime residents wax nostalgically.
“Why do we always tend to address an issue when it’s really deep into being a problem?” she said. “There used to be a time when you could stand on your porch, your deck […] and not see anybody walking the streets at three and four in the morning. This didn’t happen overnight. This has been in existence for a while.”
Several trustees brought up instances in which they’ve witnessed that complacency in action. “Some of the people walking the street at night are kids […] We need to enforce ordinances already in place […] These people come into the community and don’t respect our community, because they have no fear of anything happening to them,” said Jaycox.
Jaycox contrasted the difference between driving in Maywood and driving in River Forest. She said that she’s personally witnessed vehicles exit a restaurant on Roosevelt Road the wrong way without being stopped by police officers.
“They [the drivers] come out wrong and the police don’t always enforce,” she said. Her experience was reinforced by Trustee Melvin Lightford, who mentioned witnessing the same laxity in police enforcement. Jaycox juxtaposed that laxity on Roosevelt Road with the Madison Street vigilance for which River Forest police are well known.
“You go down Madison Street in River Forest,” Jaycox said, “[and] you’re scared the police are sitting at Thatcher. Even if they’re not there, you’re scared they are.”
After praising the police department for its recent work in the field with respect to the stores (“I see what you do”), Trustee Ron Rivers took note of the Village’s general regulatory complacency. “We have left a backdoor open and people have come in and taken advantage of the laxity,” he said. “These unscrupulous people have found a loophole in our ordinances. This will stop. We’re addressing what’s been allowed to permeate here.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark regarding this moratorium is whether or not that culture of complacency will characterize the moratorium itself.
“We’re not talking about anything that’s addressing what is already here and already being permitted,” said Trustee Ealey-Cross, reinforcing the concern of several residents. “I’m more concerned about existing businesses, because they’re causing the problems,” said Lennel Grace.
Regardless, Jurusik expressed confidence that officials would be able to formalize a set of regulations much sooner than the 180-day maximum time period allotted for the moratorium. Once those regulations are established, the Board will adopt an ordinance and terminate the moratorium, which immediately went into effect when it was approved on August 28. Assuming it isn’t terminated sooner, it will end on February 24, 2014.
All retailers whose licenses were approved before August 28 will not be affected. A public hearing to discuss the specific contents of the new regulations will be announced in the future. VFP