Homeowners Upset with Chicago Airport Noise Win Property Tax Appeals

APRIL 14, 2014

Residents of three choice Northwest Side neighborhoods have won property tax appeals — of up to nearly 12 percent — after arguing that the value of their homes has taken a nosedive because of new flight patterns at O’Hare International Airport. Those new flight paths — begun last fall to reduce airport delays and increase capacity — could end up cutting tax bills for even more homeowners, as tax assessors in Cook and DuPage counties study whether a subsequent increase in jet noise has lowered property values.

In March the Cook County Board of Review notified three Chicago homeowners — in the Indian Woods, Sauganash, and North Park neighborhoods — that they had won reductions in the assessed value of their homes. All three told the Chicago Sun-Times that their sole basis of appeal was new O’Hare jet noise, although the Board of Review also automatically studies comparable properties and sales when deciding appeals.

Two of the three won reductions after merely making impassioned pleas online, without an attorney. That included North Park homeowner Joel Frankel, 59, who won an 11.8 percent reduction. “It was remarkably simple," Frankel said. “If the whole community did this, [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] . . . would say “Oh my god! What’s happening to my tax base?’ ”

However, large-scale reductions in taxes could mean other property owners would have to pick up the slack, former Alderman Dick Simpson warned. “People who aren’t in the sound area could get mad that they are going to have to pay more taxes because other people are getting reductions," said Simpson, now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The property-tax-appeal strategy is the latest salvo from Northwest Side residents infuriated by new jet noise that accompanied an Oct. 17, 2013, change in flight patterns at O’Hare. On that date, the airport launched its fourth parallel runway as part of the O’Hare Modernization Program and began sending 70 percent of air traffic on an east-to-west path.

The decision turned a runway that parallels Thorndale Avenue into the airport’s busiest arrival pathway — often with an approach from the lake and then directly west over the city — rather than the diagonal approach over the suburbs once commonly used. All overnight arrivals also now enter O’Hare on the Thorndale runway 70 percent of the year. That includes large, and often noisy, cargo planes, residents say.

“This morning at 4:03 a.m. I was awakened by a cargo plane that seemed like it was going to land directly on my house," Diane Yost of Sauganash said last week. Yost presented the most research of the three homeowners. Armed with runway maps and newspaper articles, she showed up alone for her “day in court” at the Board of Review and won an 8 percent break on her home’s assessed value.

Yost and her two fellow winning appellants are members of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, which advocates a more equitable distribution of runway use. FAIR did not organize the property tax appeal effort, but one of its leaders, Robert Murphy, said he hopes it will finally persuade Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel to meet with the group.

The three winning appellants all live in Chicago’s Jefferson Township, home to residents of the 39th, 41st and 45th wards, where complaints to the city’s 311 O’Hare Noise Hotline have skyrocketed since the new flight patterns started. Norridge, in Cook County, as well as Itasca, Wood Dale, and Bensenville, all in DuPage County, also have seen massive increases in complaints.

“Noise pollution” from “flight path changes at O’Hare” is one factor that can affect the assessed value of property, Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi acknowledged in an email. Although it’s too late to appeal for the 2013 tax year, the Cook County Board of Review will be open to receive “pre-registration appeals” for the 2014 tax year in July, he said.

In addition, the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios — usually the first step in a Cook County appeal — expects to open its window for 2014 Jefferson Township appeals in August.

Berrios’s office will be analyzing nearly 15 years of studies on jet noise at major airports throughout North America. Documents that will be reviewed include 2,000 pages of information filed as part of an environmental impact study of the modernization program; O’Hare noise contour maps; and sales prices, listing prices, and time on the market in impacted versus nonimpacted areas, said Tom Jaconetty, the office’s deputy of valuations and appeals.

The study’s results could be reflected on reassessment notices homeowners will receive in 2015, officials said. If those assessed values are appealed in 2015, changes could be reflected on second-installment tax bills mailed out in 2016.

Yost said she’s been living with “noise-canceling” earbuds and a white noise machine since the barrage of plane noise started. She wonders if she will ever want to open her windows or use her sun porch again. “We’re getting blasted," Yost said of her once-quiet Sauganash neighborhood. “I live 10 miles from the airport. I never had airplanes over me for 14 years. They moved the airplanes over me.”

Frankel, 12 ½ miles from O’Hare, prefers music to drown out the jet noise. Joyce Viglione, eight miles away from one of the world’s busiest airports, just keeps the TV on.

Yost said that opening her notice from the Board of Review was a “vindication.’’ She was so taken aback by the news, “I had to look at it twice." But, Yost said, “It’s still a small pittance. If I go to sell my house, so what if my property taxes are reduced? I am still going to take a bigger hit than a year ago because of the planes. What I really want is a more fair allocation of runways."

Source: Sun-Times article by Rosalind Rossi