It is clear from the repeated voting pattern that there can be a political split on the Forest Park village council. But when the issue being voted on is whether or not the village should grant a zoning variance to an owner of a “non-conforming property” there is also a deepening philosophical split.
The council majority”Mayor Anthony Calderone and Trustees Tim Gillian and Mark Hosty”claim that allowing such variances is a way of improving substandard housing which drags down neighborhoods. The minority”Trustees Patrick Doolin and Theresa Steinbach”insist that such variances only extend the life of poor housing which the village’s zoning and comprehensive plan call on to be eliminated.
A property can be considered non-conforming for many reasons. Perhaps there are not adequate setbacks from property lines or two buildings are crowded on a single lot. In other cases the lot is oddly configured or the buildings take up more than the 45 percent of the lot allowed by zoning.
Whatever the situation, many of the non-conforming properties are in poor condition and need renovation or expansion to make them viable for rental or ownership. When owners or investors in such properties go to the village for permits, their requests are sent to the zoning board of appeals, and, eventually, on to the village council for resolution. While the zoning board has, mostly, approved such variances, the village council typically splits on the issue.
Recently, 304-306 Marengo came to a 3 to 2 vote. So did 7542 Dixon. And the list goes on.
All the properties in this category are considered non-conforming, thus any structural modification, alteration or expansion requires village approval.
The split votes, said council members, are the result of a philosophical difference of opinion regarding the future of these non-conforming structures.
“It is a legitimate policy question,” said Village Administrator Mike Sturino. “Philosophically it is this: whether non-conforming uses are meant to be ultimately extinguished or whether a number of non-conforming uses shouldn’t stifle the village from allowing growth and improvements to properties.”
“My opinion is that while you are waiting for them to go out of use, the property gets dilapidated,” Gillian said of his votes. “It brings property values in the entire area down. There is nothing that we as a village can do to make them keep it up, but denying the variance isn’t the way to get rid of them.”
Hosty agrees, adding that it is all about not affecting the owner standing before him while improving property values in the town.
“It can’t be the last person holding the potato who takes the loss,” he said. “The only way to get people to invest is to allow them to make more modernizations.”
If you don’t allow the variances, Hosty said, “all you’re going to end up with is more dilapidated properties. If you have a dilapidated property, you’re telling them not to put any money into it and you’re going to get the lowest denominator renter ” the ones who are causing more police calls and using more services.”
In addition, Hosty said, reviewing the structures on a case by case basis “gives [the council] a chance to have more of a say in the development.”
For Doolin, however, this argument is not enough.
“To say that buying (a dilapidated non-conforming property) is going to improve everybody else’s property values ” well show me the data,” Doolin said. “You can improve the property without expanding it. You can buy 306 Marengo, you can scrape and paint the exterior, put a new roof on and still improve the value of the property without creating a larger more dense nonconforming use.”
For Doolin, it all comes down to needs, not wants, as the variance process was put in place to allow certain cases to come before the council and prove they truly do need to be the exception to the rule.
“The problem I see evolving here is that, at face value, a variation to a non-conforming use means some type of overwhelming argument has to be made by the petitioner,” Doolin said. “Just wanting to do it is not enough. There has to be some type of overwhelming hardship. So far I have not seen anybody make an overwhelming case and prove true hardship.”
The hardship, said Gillian, is obvious.
“It is a hardship for the neighborhood which has to deal with it,” Gillian said. “In the case of 304 and 306 Marengo they are homes that are in fairly bad condition. The fact of the matter is that the gentleman who owns the house now can sell it and it can go on forever as a nonconforming use and the only thing we have as leverage is that we won’t let them clean it up. That doesn’t make sense.”
Another issue of contention is residential density.
“Hosty has run two campaigns now on overcrowding and density but at every turn that commissioner allows variations to take place which are going to create larger properties so more people can live there,” Doolin said.
“If you have one lot and you have two homes on that lot I think it is a density issue,” she said. “Most of our zoning is based on density. That is how it is zoned. I don’t know how you can divorce density from zoning. It is one of the purposes of zoning.”
But to Gillian, it all comes back to the council not being able to force someone off a property or to tear it down.
“I don’t buy the congestion argument,” he said. “When you recognize that the guy doesn’t have to tear down what is there, the option is you can’t do anything to it, live with it like a dilapidated home.”
To him, letting the variances pass means keeping the neighborhood looking bright and clean with fresh houses, painted nicely or sided nicely, an argument that to him far outweighs having two or more people in the house.
Next week, Part two of the series continues to explore the global philosophical issues surrounding nonconforming properties and Mayor Calderone speaks about his reliance on the Zoning Board of Appeals and what the future holds for the council int his regard.
Mayor Anthony Calderone: Aye
“Unless there is something glaring in a recommendation ” a responsible group of people have received testimony and done the due diligence ” why should I vote against [the ZBA’s] recommendation?”
Commissioner Tim Gillian: Aye
“While you are waiting for [the uses] to go out of use, the property gets dilapidated, it brings property values in the entire area down. There is nothing that we as a village can do to make them keep it up, but by denying the variance isn’t the way to get rid of them.”
Commissioner Theresa Steinbach: Nay
“Our code, developed in 1969, says that the code’s intention is to provide for the elimination of nonconforming uses of land. The gradual reduction needs to take place.”
Commissioner Patrick Doolin: Nay
“Just wanting to do it is not enough. There has to be some type of overwhelming hardship. So far I have not seen anybody make an overwhelming case and prove true hardship”
Commissioner Mark Hosty: Aye
“It can’t be the last person holding the potato takes the loss, the only way to get people to invest is to allow them to make more modernizations.”