Sharon Daly would like to build a garage where she could park her car and store a few things, but she’s having the darnedest time. She lives in a two-flat in the 400 block of Marengo and also has a coach house on the back of the parcel. Daly has the room to build, she says, but clunky zoning regulations have prevented her from making the improvements she would like.
Instead of choosing a contractor, Daly has found herself slogging through stacks of public records and old newspapers trying to understand how the rules that govern her home came to be. It has been an entirely frustrating process, she said.
Rather than finding clarity in Forest Park’s zoning regulations, Daly has claimed she’s wrestling a shadowy and sometimes slippery rulebook. As best she can tell, much of her own – and the village’s – woes are tied to an amendment adopted a decade ago.
“I know that something happened in 1998, and nobody wants to talk about it,” Daly said.
Commissioner Mike Curry agreed with Daly that property owners are at the mercy of a “vague and ambiguous” set of rules. Since winning a seat on the council in 2007, the former zoning board chairman has quietly taken steps to try and improve the situation and fulfill one of his most oft repeated campaign promises. This month, Curry said he intends to push zoning reforms to the fore, starting with a report on the subject delivered during the next council meeting.
For too long, he said, taxpayers and local government have had to bear unnecessary burdens because of a poorly conceived code.
“I don’t know if the village wants to issue a formal apology for anything here,” Curry said of convoluted regulations. “We have an opportunity here and that opportunity is to right a wrong.”
Last summer, an intern from village hall walked the streets of Forest Park taking a detailed property tally. Curry, meanwhile, with the help of former village administrator Mike Sturino, began poring over the zoning code. Basic definitions need to be retooled and it’s apparent that having only three classifications for residential properties won’t suffice, he said. Condos, for example, are altogether ignored by the village’s regulations.
“In theory, every condo in our village is legal non-conforming,” Curry said.
That phrase, “legal non-conforming,” has come to epitomize what critics contend is a broken system. Properties that carry this label are allowed to stand in Forest Park, but often face serious hurdles when it comes time to make improvements and repairs. Village officials have estimated that greater than 50 percent of homes in Forest Park don’t comply with zoning, thus earning this label. Daly’s home on Marengo is one of them.
Mayor Anthony Calderone has been reluctant to make changes to building and zoning codes, and at this point in his third term has opted not to broach the subject during council meetings. Because Curry oversees the Department of Public Health and Safety, said Calderone, it is the commissioner’s responsibility to press for any reforms and thus far he has not done so.
The mayor said he is aware of Curry’s efforts to develop possible changes, but questioned the process.
“I believe Curry to be well-intentioned and he took it upon himself to ask the village administrator to help him with that, but where does the village administrator devote the bulk of his time and attention,” Calderone said. “The wishes of an individual commissioner?”
Several weeks ago, Calderone solicited Curry to revise a portion of the zoning code related to setback requirements. That request came in the wake of the council’s controversial approval granted to a commissioner who claimed he was unaware of code violations at his home. According to Calderone, the change he is seeking will benefit many property owners.
However, the mayor said that before any sweeping revisions that Curry might propose can be implemented, elected officials need to first understand which portions of the code the zoning board is most often asked to waive. And as for building codes, which regulate the materials and engineering used in construction, Calderone said he’s unsure of any pressing need for change.
“If it truly is better I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way,” Calderone said. “Nobody’s been able to articulate that betterness to me.”
During the village council’s next meeting, Curry said he intends to begin seeking reforms to both the zoning codes and the building codes. As for the mayor’s comment that Curry is responsible for the lack of discussion at the council level, the commissioner said he accepts responsibility for such and would immediately work to bring more attention to the issue.