Nearly five years ago, Charles L. Byrum began working with national developer Del Webb to build its first active-adult community in Lake County.
He negotiated contracts with two residents who owned 300 acres near the Village of Mundelein. He then worked with village officials to zone the land, obtain required permits, and arrange annexation agreements.
Byrum, 66, a partner at Meltzer Purtill & Stelle LLC, found the Village of Mundelein receptive to Grand Dominion, the new 735-home community for residents who were 55 and older. Village officials pushed the Del Webb development forward and identified several economic benefits that it would deliver to their area.
“If it had been a normal demographic situation, it probably would have generated enough students to build a new school,” Byrum says. “With no students, the real estate taxes that came in from this were excellent. The schools received a lot of money without any real burdens.”
Village officials expected many residents to move in with more discretionary income, he says. After paying for their children’s education and other expenses, they could now spend their money in area stores and restaurants. They also believed that since many residents were retired or working nontraditional hours, they would rarely contribute to traffic tie-ups in the mornings or early evenings, he says.
As Byrum helped Del Webb plan the active-adult community, he also helped the developer face two separate lawsuits. In the first suit, a nearby municipality attempted to forcibly annex portions of property set aside for the development. Byrum supervised the team that handled the litigation, and after a year, they won the case for his client.
“It’s hard, because you plan these things, and builders have these business plans to break ground in the spring, put the streets in, start selling homes in September,” he says. “Then all of the sudden, you have a lawsuit that puts everything on hold for a while. There is a lot of pressure to win and to win as soon as you can.”
The second suit came from a nearby homeowner who claimed that Del Webb trespassed on his easement. Byrum’s team succeeded in convincing the judge that the homeowner never had an easement.
Byrum enjoyed working on Grand Dominion because he knew how much the development would benefit the Village of Mundelein.
“It was good for not only the schools but also for the libraries and the parks, because they were going to get a lot of revenue out of this,” he says. “It was a prestigious development that really didn’t have any downside.”
In the past 35 years, Byrum has represented developers and builders in land use and development projects in more than 40 communities around Chicago.
He represents developers in negotiating and preparing acquisition and sale contracts, annexation and development agreements, financing agreements, and leases with land owners and municipalities. He also works with land owners and municipalities to obtain approvals, re-zonings, and permits for projects that call for changes in land use.
Byrum grew up in Wilmette and graduated from New Trier High School. He studied psychology at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. and never considered a career in law until he drove his college roommate to take his law boards. Instead of waiting for six hours, he took the test and aced it.
“I won the lottery in a way, just by that experience,” he says.
Byrum graduated from Northwestern University Law School in 1969. He decided that he wanted to avoid working for a large law firm.
“As a young lawyer, you were put on a practice track,” he recalls. “You’re going to be a litigator or you’re going to be a securities lawyer. That was it; that’s all you had. I wanted to do a little bit of everything.”
He joined midsize Chicago firm Defrees & Fiske LLC and handled litigation, real estate, tax, estate planning, and even family law. He never planned to practice in all of those areas, but he benefited from building his reputation with diverse clients.
Byrum narrowed in on land use and development with the help of his mentors, David Hoffman, who went to high school with his father, and Thomas Z. Hayward Jr., who was five years older than him.
Hoffman ran the law firm’s real estate practice and introduced Byrum to zoning. He allowed Byrum to work with his clients and nurtured his career. Hayward also practiced in land use. He taught Byrum how to think on his feet and how to act in development project hearings.
“He was very cool and collected and likeable,” Byrum says. “I thought that was a very good way to be, so I tried to emulate him.”
‘It’s a Matter of Persuasion’
Byrum believes that the study of psychology prepared him for a career in law. He applies those skills during every day that he practices in land use and development.
“Land use consists of trying to persuade municipalities that what your client wants to do will be good for them,” Byrum says. “It’s a matter of persuasion, and your job is to find some common needs, some answers, and some protections. If you understand human nature, you have a great head start.”
For each new development, Byrum meets with city land-planners, engineers, and consultants, who point out problems in his client’s proposals and challenge him to come up with solutions. He attends a public hearing and presents his arguments to the city planning commission. He responds to commissioner questions and convinces them that the project will benefit their community.
Byrum finds it most difficult to persuade concerned area residents who also attend the public hearing and pose their own questions. He strives to keep a calm demeanor rather than fighting or “over-lawyering.”
“We’re trained as lawyers to think that we know more than the next person and that we’ve got all the answers,” he says. “That’s the worst thing you can do. You don’t talk down to people, you talk to them.”
Residents voice the most concerns over commercial development projects such as shopping centers. Byrum represented one national grocery chain that purchased a vacant lot that was surrounded by other vacant lots. The developer sped through the zoning process and planned to construct the new store after new homes were built nearby.
When the developer instead expanded the size of the store and needed to add 100 feet to the property, the zoning process restarted. The next eight weeks were spent arguing with the new adjacent homeowners over traffic, signs, and lights.
“The commercial ones are tough, but the smart developers have learned that there are things they can do to take away some of the perceived bad aspects,” Byrum says.
Byrum directed his client to show neighbors that the store could control the height of the lighting, the times of deliveries, and the hours of operation. He encouraged the store manager to share his successful experiences from four previous stores. He also called on consultants to answer questions about traffic and noise abatement. He relied on another consultant to show the municipality the amount of revenue that could come from the new store.
“You have to have a good team and present your client’s case in a convincing and well-woven way,” he says. “I find them and pull them all together, make sure that their testimony is well-structured and that they’ve done their homework.”
Byrum presents the same experts and arguments during full city council or village board meetings. After the parties agree on the development project and its terms, he drafts any required ordinances, agreements, or covenants.
“There are a lot of stops along the way before you get to where you want to be,” Byrum says. “It’s very gratifying because everyone had a chance to go over it with you, get the questions that they had answered, and participate in that plan going forward.”
“Every town is different,” he says. “Every body along the way, whether it’s the plan commission, the zoning board, or the city council, all have their own agendas. The individuals have their own agendas. The understanding of people helps.”
Laws of the Land
Byrum practiced at Defrees & Fiske for nearly 20 years and served on the firm’s management committee. He moved to Gardner Carton & Douglas LLP in 1990, choosing the large law firm because he knew several of its lawyers and liked its collegial atmosphere. He served as chairman of the real estate group for several years and worked with Conway Farms, a new golf course and residential development in Lake Forest.
“They needed a guy who understood land use and a guy who could put together homeowner association documents, condominium association documents, and easements between golf course property and residential property and drainage easements,” Byrum says. “It took on a life of its own.”
Alexander Stuart, the president of Conway Farms, worked with Byrum to develop the golf course and residential community. Byrum started by drafting the declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions, and nearly 10 years later, he finished by negotiating the sale of the golf club, private residence lots and parcels, and office and research property.
Byrum never wavered from their business plan, Stuart says. Even as negotiations with land owners or homeowners became animated, Byrum maintained his composure and moved the parties toward middle ground.
“He was never a strutting lawyer,” Stuart says. “He never had to show that he was smarter than the next guy. We synced up really well, because I really believe that a negotiation is something that ends up working for both parties as opposed to one guy crushing the other.”
Stuart and others at Conway Farms valued Byrum for his reasonable nature and unflappability.
“I always felt that Chuck had my back,” Stuart says. “That was good, because there were a couple of instances where someone would be rattling a saber, and Chuck would come in and quiet it down.”
Byrum moved to Meltzer Purtill & Stelle in April 2010. He met the firm chairman, Brian Meltzer, in high school and often called him with questions about condominium and homeowners’ associations. He always considered a possible move to his firm.
“Brian felt strongly that both the firm and I would be better off if I came over here,” Byrum says. “Early this year, I called him and asked him if he still felt that way. I came over, and my clients came with me.”
Steven Atchison, the division president of the Chicago and Michigan markets for Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, started working with Byrum nearly a year ago and moved with him to the midsize Chicago firm.
Atchison recently asked Byrum to assist Pulte Homes with a new townhouse development in Arlington Heights. A local bank that had foreclosed on a raw piece of land agreed to develop the lots for Pulte Homes if the homebuilder agreed to close on those finished lots.
As Byrum worked with bank attorneys on business concerns and drafted contracts between the bank and the homebuilder, he brought a different perspective to the project than most other lawyers, Atchison says.
“A lot of attorneys just want to help support their clients’ opinions without trying to understand and communicate opposing counsel’s thoughts,” Atchison says. “That has helped us reach agreements on several land contracts. Rather than a contract being one-sided, he tries to make sure it’s as mutual as possible.”
His vast experience in the Chicago area also added to his effective representation of Pulte Homes, Atchison says.
“When I came into town, Chuck routinely reached out to me,” he says. “He wanted to make sure that I knew the big land owners in town, and he spent time to educate me on Chicago land. He showed a lot of interest in me being successful.”
Early in his career, Byrum represented a client in a contentious case, and instead of sitting in court for six months, he solved the matter through arbitration in just four days. He signed on as an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association and has handled more than 100 construction, real estate, and general commercial cases.
Byrum views arbitration as a cheaper, more efficient alternative to litigation. He believes that he adds further benefit as an arbitrator with a background in construction and real estate.
“Judges are smart, but they often hear something for the first time and have to make a decision,” he says. “I anguish over a lot of decisions, but I would like to think that when I render one, it’s well thought out and comes from experience.”
Byrum takes on another role when he steps on to the softball diamond. After playing sports as a kid, he decided to start playing senior softball with men and women who are 50 and older. In the past 12 years, he traveled the country, winning two world championships and one national championship with his team.
He called on the experience as inspiration for his first book, A Boys’ Game. The book came out in September and chronicles the journey of an older man who plays softball to stay young.
“He’s being marginalized at work and in other aspects of his life, and he’s looked at as being older and as someone who should settle down,” Byrum says. “He finds out that a number of men his age have the same feeling, and they have a chance to join one of these teams. If they’re good enough, they get a lot out of it, and maybe even a chance to go to the world championship.”
“It’s just nice to get this kind of message out,” he says. “People in their late 50s and early 60s need something to rejuvenate them.”
Byrum lives in Lake Forest with his wife, Bonnie. The couple has been married for 40 years and has two daughters, Julie and Molly. Julie teaches yoga and has two sons, Gavin and Hank. Molly works as a children’s advocate in Denver.
Last September, on one of his favorite days, Byrum played softball in the Senior Olympics in Springfield, watched Hank play soccer in a pewee league, and watched Julie play soccer in a local women’s league.
“There were three generations playing sports,” he says. “That was a fun Sunday for me.”