Wheaton couple sues zoo over expansion efforts

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Wheaton residents Kevin and Christy Needham stand with their son, Tommy, in their backyard in front of the proposed site for a Cosley Zoo parking lot. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Having a 2-year-old and another child on the way, Wheaton residents Kevin and Christy Needham know the concerns of which they speak in opposing the proposed Cosley Zoo parking expansion.

“We know what it’s like to wrangle a 2-year-old,” Christy Needham said, “Every single day, he’s trying to run into yards. Cosley is a great zoo. Kids under 5 are their target audience.

“They are looking to create a situation where parents are crossing Gary Avenue with young children. It is not the best solution.”

The Needhams are suing the Wheaton Park District, owners of the zoo, to put the brakes on the proposed parking expansion at the zoo.

Park District officials are looking to create 93 parking spaces on the east side of Gary Avenue with a lot that would butt up against the Needhams’ property and the parcels of several other residents near the zoo.

“The Park District says it needs to expand parking for the current zoo patrons,” Kevin Needham said. “There is no empirical data showing the zoo needs another parking lot.”

The Park District contends that there are at least 170 days per year when the current west lot fills up at some point during the day. The proposed east lot would be for overflow parking.

The city of Wheaton is putting a traffic signal at Prairie Avenue and Gary — where the proposed entrance to the east parking lot would be — to ensure pedestrian and traffic safety in the area whether the proposed east lot is created or not.

Attorney Tom Frederick, who represents the Needhams, said the couple has already gotten two of the three pieces of relief they were seeking in their initial lawsuit — for the Park District to have to meet Wheaton zoning standards and elimination of the Park District’s master plan — filed in the fall. The only thing the Wheaton couple still needs is relief from the proposed parking encroachment, Frederick said.

The Park District has an intergovernmental agreement with the city allowing for an expedited approval process and relaxed city standards to meet.

“We were seeking a declaration that the agreement was unconstitutional and that the Park District follow Wheaton zoning laws,” Frederick said.

In October, Park District commissioners said they would follow Wheaton zoning laws and not the relaxed standards of the intergovernmental agreement in any parking expansion efforts.

In February, Park District commissioners rescinded their master plan, which called for expanded Cosley Zoo exhibits, night events, wedding receptions and a 250-space parking lot.

Frederick is not a resident of the area but drives past the zoo on a regular basis.

“I drive by there. It is a very busy street,” Frederick said. “This is a matter of common sense. Why would you put people at risk when you could put more parking on the same side of the road as the zoo?

“The Park District has not presented any credible evidence that the zoo needs more parking. They claim that on more than one-third of the days the west lot is full. The people who live around there say that is just not true, that the lot is only full on special occasions.”

Christy Needham is one of those neighbors questioning the zoo’s need for more parking.

“The Park District has a list of dates with an ‘X’ next to when they say the lot is full,” she said. “There are probably 100 neighbors driving past there who don’t see the lot full. I drive past there all the time and I can count on one hand the times I have seen the lot full since July. I don’t think they need more parking for the existing zoo.”

Kevin Needham said he has seen more than a dozen accidents in the area during the nearly 2½ years the Wheaton couple has lived in the Pioneer Terrace Subdivision near the zoo.

“Most of the accidents have occurred at the intersection of Gary and Prairie, which is where the (zoo) crosswalk is going to go,” he said.

A real estate appraisal the Needhams had done shows that the couple would lose 9-11 percent of their property value if a parking lot was put next to their backyard.

They said a Park District appraisal shows no impact on property values should the parking lot be built.

“When we bought the home, we knew those were residential lots behind us and we knew there was forest preserve behind us,” Christy Needham said. “We were surprised to learn we could be living next to a parking lot.”

Kevin Needham said the Cosley Zoo does not need to be expanded as had been proposed.

“Brookfield Zoo is 15 miles away if you want the zoo experience,” he said. “The Park District is saying it wants the zoo as an evening venue and as a place to host weddings. There is no justification for an additional parking lot.

“Talking about evening events and weddings, you are talking about inebriated individuals crossing the street or jumping the (parking lot) fence. The Park District is saying they want the zoo to host afterhours events and events on weekends until 8, 9 (p.m.) or later. It is not conducive with the neighborhood.

“Their plan is not about conservation, it’s about fundraising.”

Michael Benard, executive director of the Wheaton Park District, could not be reached for comment as of press time.