This story is the third in a series.
Several members of an activist group opposed to the industrial redevelopment of Calumet Country Club were ejected from the Hazel Crest board meeting on Feb. 14 after they disrupted the proceedings in protest over an agenda change.
Five members of South Suburbs for Greenspace were removed from the regular board meeting, the first as the board was starting to consider a motion to annex the country club into the village. Three others were forcibly removed by police officers.
Hazel Crest typically offers two opportunities for public comment during its regular board meetings, one before the board acts on new and old business so residents can comment on agenda items and one after business has concluded so residents can comment on other matters.
The agenda for the Feb. 14 meeting eliminated the first public comment period, so residents did not have an opportunity to speak on the country club annexation question before the board voted. An SSG member noted that the omission appears to violate village policy specifying the order of business, which lists public participation before old and new business.
The Chronicle sent email the morning before the meeting to Mayor Vernard Alsberry and Village Manager Dante Sawyer asking for comment on the agenda change, but neither responded.
About 30 members of SSG gathered at Hazel Crest village hall, 3102 183rd St., at 6 p.m. for a rally to oppose the village’s annexation of the country club. The group has campaigned against the industrial redevelopment of the property since January 2021, when the property was still in Homewood.
Homewood was forced to disconnect the property in April 2021. The nearly 130-acre site has been in unincorporated Cook County since then.
After about 25 minutes displaying signs near 183rd Street, the group moved to the exterior door of the board room where trustees were holding the administrative meeting prior to the regular meeting. The administrative meeting gives board members an opportunity to discuss future business.
In a preview of what was to come, the group attempted to distract trustees with loud shouts of “Let us speak!”
After a few minutes, Police Chief Mitchell Davis and several officers came outside and stationed themselves between protestors and the door until the meeting began.
While the annexation question was being read during the regular meeting, some SSG members in the audience again began chanting “Let us speak!”
One member, Aster, of Homewood, previously known as Casey Kueltzo, was the first of five people to be removed from the room by police for failing to abide by village policy governing speaking privileges.
The fifth person to be removed, after a number of others had spoken, was Keaton Fisher, of Homewood, who tried to evade police as they attempted to remove him. He was restrained by several officers before being removed from the room.
After Fisher’s turn, the board closed the public speaking portion of the meeting, which had gone on for about 90 minutes.
SSG co-founder Liz Varmecky was removed soon after Aster, but she returned to the meeting to criticize what she sees as a divide-and-conquer strategy that the developer and some village officials are using against opponents of the project. She noted that residents from surrounding communities have been called outsiders by Hazel Crest officials.
“We are not outsiders. We are the original insiders,” Varmecky said. “This movement is about stopping more industry and trucking from coming into our community. It’s about protecting Southland green spaces, air quality, health and property values for all of us. But there is one person in this entire drama who is clearly a Southland outsider. And that is Walt Brown.”
Brown, who owns the golf course property and has been proposing redevelopment since 2018, resides in Scottsdale, Arizona. Redevelopment is now being proposed by Catalyst Consulting, a group of minority business people working in partnership with Brown.
Another woman shared Varmecky’s views on the divisiveness the project has produced.
“I know there seems to be this Homewood versus Hazel Crest thing going on, but really we’re all just people,” she said. “We’re all minority communities considered poor by this state of Illinois. So as far as I’m concerned, we’re all one.”
Alsberry chastised those who disrupted the meeting.
“I’ve never seen people so disrespectful, who will not even give people an opportunity to speak,” he said. “We can agree to disagree, but we always are going to move forward. I’m not going to be bullied by people who don’t listen to what the facts are.”
Varmecky said now that the annexation has been approved, SSG shifts its focus.
“What’s next is that we’ll start taking a look at the zoning process and look at what potential recourse we have in that process,” she said.
Brown was invited by the Chronicle to offer comments on what the Hazel Crest annexation means for the redevelopment project.
“We have full support of the community, other then the very few, non Hazel Crest residents, who are lying to create problems,” he said in an email message, quoted verbatim. “Catalyst has done and amazing job, and the entire community should be proud of what they have done.”