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A wide ranging and often prickly debate over the village’s order to tear down a coach house at 417 Circle Ave. ended with the zoning board of appeals unanimously overturning the mandate that was handed down by the office of Public Health and Safety.

The Nov. 15, 2006, ruling from Director Mike Boyle was challenged by the property’s owner, Amy Perry, of Oak Park. At its April 10 meeting, ZBA members spoke directly with village staff, Perry and the tenant of the coach house, to determine whether the property had been vacated for a period of six months.

In ordering the coach house be destroyed, Boyle cited a section of the zoning code stipulating that if a six-month vacancy in a legal non-conforming structure occurs, the property is considered abandoned and must be brought into compliance with the zoning for that property.

In Forest Park, coach houses were effectively deemed as illegal structures several decades ago, and are not to be constructed or expanded upon in any way.

“There was never anywhere near six months that I wasn’t living there,” Paddy Delaney, the tenant of the property said.

The ruling on the coach house is not subject to review by the village council.

Approximately in November of 2005, Delaney said he noticed a crack in the radiator, and unsure of the exact nature of the problem, shutoff the water supply to the coach house. For more than a year Delaney resided in both the coach house and in a two-flat on the same lot where a friend was living. He testified to using water from the two-flat to bathe, clean and cook in the coach house.

During this time, Delaney was also remodeling the interior of the coach house. He has lived in the unit for more than seven years.

“He was living between the two buildings,” Perry said.

An odd twist to the discussion was added when Boyle presented the municipal water bill for the coach house, which revealed that for more than a year, no running water had been used. Boyle submitted the document in support his claim that the property was vacant. And if in fact running water was not being used, Boyle said that too, is a change in the normal residential use of the property. In changing the use of a coach house, the property is subject to demolition.

Further, the absence of running water creates an unsanitary living condition and the property should be condemned, Boyle said.

“I think the reasonable conclusion is that this structure was unoccupied,” Boyle said.

More than a handful of residents spoke in favor of allowing Perry to keep the coach house and several questioned the logic of using the water bill to demolish the home. The village never turned off the service so the ability to access running water always existed. Whether out of ignorance or in adherence to some cultural standard, audience members argued that a person’s decision not to use running water should not be grounds for demolition.

From a legal standpoint, Perry’s attorney, Katie Newsham, said the use of running water was not part of Boyle’s reasoning when he drafted his demolition order. As interesting as it may be, Newsham said, it’s irrelevant.

“(Boyle) started building his case after he sent out the notice to tear down the place,” Newsham said.

The ZBA was also scheduled to deliberate the fate of Perry’s two-flat located at the same address, but tabled the matter until May 21. In that case, the property is also a legal non-conforming structure and was damaged in a November 2006 fire. If the property suffered more than 50 percent of its value in damage, as Boyle said it has, then it must be torn down and reconstructed as a single-family home to bring it into compliance with the neighborhood’s R-1 zoning status.

ZBA Chairman Mike Curry said the questions surrounding Perry’s rental properties are forcing the village to examine its building and zoning codes. Curry has estimated that as much as 20 to 50 percent of the housing stock in Forest Park consists of legal non-conforming properties.

“I have a feeling this is going to be the first in what will become a large amount of non-conforming issues,” Curry said.