Part two in a series
On Feb. 14, the village council, in a three-to-two vote approved a variance for 7542 Dixon, a non-conforming property in which the owner was altering the structure to add a second exit, as well as rearranging the staircase.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 28, the council, also in a narrow three-to-two vote, approved a variance for 304-306 Marengo in which the owner wanted to do work on a second building on the lot, adding more usable bathroom space.
Both these properties were non-conforming”they did not meet the minimum requirements set forth by the village Zoning Code”and in both cases, history seemed to repeat itself, showing not only a persistent voting pattern by the village council but a deep philosophical split on the council on how to deal with these properties.
The council majority”Mayor Anthony Calderone and Commissioners Tim Gillian and Mark Hosty”see allowing such variances as a way of keeping up the look of the village and improving property values in the surrounding neighborhoods. The minority”Commissioners Patrick Doolin and Theresa Steinbach”insist variances should be need based, not desire based and that they only extend the life of poor housing.
For his part, Calderone said his votes signify he is relying on the Zoning Board of Appeals’ recommendation which, he said, is the appropriate place to raise these questions.
“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 their recommendation? If that was the case, then why have a ZBA,” Calderone said.
“Someone needs to debate with me why it is a poor idea to allow continued use of non-conforming structures, I am willing to listen” Calderone said. However, “when we have an agenda item that is not the place to talk globally. You can’t use a petitioner’s request as a reel-in to talk globally. That’s not the matter that’s before you.”
Calderone believes that enhancing the properties and the value of the properties in question is a benefit to the town as a whole.
The bottom line, for Doolin and Steinbach, however is that the law is clear.
“Our code, developed in 1969, says that the code’s intention is to provide for the elimination of non-conforming uses of land,” Steinbach said. “The gradual reduction needs to take place.”
She adds that, like the zoning code, the village’s comprehensive plan also speaks to non-conforming uses.
“One of the main goals of the comprehensive plan is to provide a more coherent development pattern still providing for a mix of residential uses and densities,” she quotes from the plan. “In a roundabout way it is also talking [about this.] It is talking about planning on moving the housing stock towards what we want it to be and non-conforming is non-conforming for a reason ” it is not what we want it to be.”
For her the council is not sticking to its guns.
“When we look at it, I think if the council sticks to its guns and goes by its zoning ordinances and the comprehensive plan, values will rise and Forest Park will be a better place,” she said.
“It was determined these structures are no longer desirable,” Doolin said. “Most of them were poorly constructed in the first place. Accessory structures thrown up in the back of a lot. They weren’t put up to current standards. It served a purpose but somewhere a village council determined this is not a acceptable use. The goal is the elimination of these properties. That is what a non-conforming use is.”
This interpretation, to Gillian at least, is not entirely accurate.
“That variances exist so that the council and the zoning board have an opportunity to review these on a case by case basis,” he said. “I look at every separate case and the issues surrounding it and decide that it makes the most sense for the entire community to have the houses cleaned up.”
On the sidelines of this philosophical battle is debate over what some see as profiteering.
“Another issue I have is that the people who are coming forward and asking these expansions all purchased these properties as non-conforming properties,” Doolin said. “The village informs them of the fact when they purchase it. They buy these properties anyways knowing full well what they’re getting into and then say, ‘I need to be able to rent it to more people, park more cars.’ That’s not our problem.
“Most of it is not for the good of the neighborhood. Most of it is a driven by profit,” he said. “When profit is the driving factor in expanding these non-conforming uses then the village council has to say no. Make it work or don’t buy it.”
“I know Patrick has an issue with people investing in town and then selling the property. I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said Gillian. “I think it is a better thing than having John Q. Public owning those two homes and saying ‘I can’t fix them, I am going to milk as much out of them as I can and can still rent them and make my payments on them’.”
Doolin does see a time when he would vote for a variance.
“Our job is to determine what a need is, what a want is,” he said. “Sometimes people live in a non-conforming property, they have two kids, they want to stay in Forest Park, but the place isn’t big enough ” that is a case I would be willing to listen to.” The variance, however, he said, shouldn’t be a given, it should be an exception.
“I haven’t seen them turn anybody down,” Doolin said. “If everybody gets a variance then why not eliminate the need for the process. How are we taking this on a case by case basis if everyone gets a variance and nobody is required to make a case for hardship?”
As for the future, Calderone suggested the council might be in for a retreat to iron out some of these differences of opinion.
“It is an ideological issue between elected officials,” Calderone said. “We have yet to really look at non-conforming issues in a global aspect. As a group we need to have some conversations on non-conforming uses and whether or not we feel a structure is non-conforming that we definitively do not want to allow alterations.”
“It would be in our best interest to catalogue and inventory the amount of non-conforming uses, then we’d have to take a hard look at how this could impact housing values. It may not affect them at all,” Calderone said.