A pending appeal filed with the zoning board over the use of a legal, non-conforming structure underscores the sometimes clumsy relationship between Forest Park’s zoning codes and the real estate it governs.
In early November 2006, property owner Amy Perry lost her two-flat at 417 Circle Ave. to a kitchen fire. In the days following the incident, building inspectors for the village learned that an unattached coach house on the same lot had been vacant for at least six months, according to Mike Boyle, director of the Department of Public Health and Safety. Perry pointed to a faulty heating system that needed to be repaired as the reason for the vacancy, Boyle said.
Both structures had been classified as legal, non-conforming developments, which essentially grandfathered them into an area zoned for single-family homes.
But according to the zoning ordinance, legal, non-conforming properties that have been vacant for six months must be brought into compliance. In other words, Perry may not be allowed to repair the heater and continue renting the coach house.
“You have to bring that [structure] back into conformance,” Boyle said. “In this case that means demolition.”
As for the two-flat, non-conforming structures that suffer damage equal to at least 51 percent of the property’s value must be brought into compliance. Boyle said his office ruled that the fire damage to Perry’s property exceeds this standard.
Perry is appealing the village’s decision that the coach house be demolished, and contends the property was not vacant. A zoning board of appeals hearing is scheduled for March 21. The village has not issued an order with respect to the two-flat.
On the advice of an attorney representing her in the matter, Perry, an Oak Park resident, declined to comment. She did, however, say that she is aware of the potential for another fight over the future of the two-flat.
“I am aware of the issues surrounding all those things,” Perry said.
Potentially hundreds of property owners in Forest Park could find themselves in a similar situation. Village officials acknowledged there are a number of legal, non-conforming properties in Forest Park, but declined to provide any solid estimates of exactly how many. Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Mike Curry, however, said it’s unlikely the problem could be overstated.
“I can’t even begin to imagine how many there are in Forest Park,” Curry said. “I’m sure it’s more than 20 percent, but I would be surprised if it exceeded 50 percent.”
Addressing this issue is a daunting but necessary task, Curry said, and requires widespread revisions of the village’s zoning codes. Curry, who is seeking election to the village council in April, said the changes would require the village to rethink its approach to zoning. For example, rather than arguing over lot coverage restrictions, the village should mandate a certain amount of green space when considering development proposals. He also suggested rezoning those neighborhoods that are dominated by non-conforming structures, thereby reducing the need for variances. These changes, he said, would close up the loop holes that developers and their attorneys have been slipping through.
“My idea is a little radical, but I’d like to start at page one and completely rewrite it,” Curry said of the zoning ordinance.
Back at the building department though, Boyle said wholesale revisions aren’t appropriate under a system that demands each case be considered on its own merit.
“Unfortunately it has to be done one by one,” Boyle said. “You couldn’t do a sweeping change because you’d have to flatten the town to have a clean slate.”
Though they don’t agree on how to address the issue of non-conforming structures, Boyle and Curry did see the same root problem. Much of village’s housing stock predates the zoning ordinance, which has made for an awkward fit. Coupled with the lack of revisions to the now decades old codes, new developments are running into problems of their own.
“You’re going to have a lot of these issues,” Boyle said.