Village Administrator Tim Gillian would like a deeper understanding of exactly which properties in Forest Park are in foreclosure and, for the time being, his concern is two-fold. Guaranteeing that vacant properties don’t become an eyesore for neighbors is difficult to do when it’s not always clear who – or which institution – holds the rights to the property.
Secondly, a potential showdown over development rights that could further slow the market’s rebound would be better understood with an accurate inventory.
Hundreds of homes in Forest Park fall into a tricky zoning classification that can make it difficult for owners to make otherwise routine improvements, such as adding a porch. These homes are also subject to a municipal rule that says if the property is vacant for six months it may have to be substantially changed before it can be lived in again.
With foreclosures forcing people out of their homes in unprecedented numbers, Gillian is concerned that vacant two-flats and other multi-family properties will be nearly impossible for banks to flip because the town would require those properties be converted into single-family homes. Huge swaths of the residential neighborhoods south of Madison are zoned strictly for single-family homes.
“I don’t suspect that it’s going to be easy,” Gillian said of solving the problem. “In fact, I’m not confident that we’ll get it right the first time.”
Rather than force property owners to alter the village’s housing stock to meet local zoning regulations, Gillian would like to change at least some of the regulations. The concern, though, is that by trying to solve one problem the village will create another – potentially lots of others.
Changes to the zoning code made in years past were meant to have certain effects, such as limiting one type of construction or promoting another. Unintended consequences of those changes have put the town in the predicament it has been for years. Homeowners and municipal staff spend an undue amount of resources trying to manage a housing stock that simply bears little resemblance to what is described in the regulations.
The problem is not new, but village officials have been reluctant to make fundamental changes to the rules and instead chip away at the edges. The onslaught of foreclosures, however, may present Forest Park with no escape from making bigger revisions.
Insurance companies and banks are especially leery of risking their bottom line in this economy, and Gillian said the town’s zoning gives them additional pause. The owner of a two-flat told him recently that in trying to refinance his home the insurer balked because of the zoning.
“That is one of the unintended consequences of the way the zoning is,” Gillian said.
By the end of January, said Gillian, he would like to see an open discussion involving elected officials and residents about how to change the zoning so that fewer properties fall into this classification, called legal non-conforming. The restrictions on these properties, he said, are simply “not fair.”
Commissioner Mike Curry, who oversees the department responsible for enforcing zoning and building regulations, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Three of his colleagues on the council, however, said they would support a process by which changes could be made.
“For an older town where zoning wasn’t enforced when it first started out … spot zoning doesn’t work,” Commissioner Mark Hosty said. He described the legal non-conforming regulations as overly “cumbersome.”
Commissioner Rory Hoskins agreed that revisions may be necessary, but the utmost caution needs to exercised, he said. The process could be handled internally, without additional consultants, he said, but shouldn’t be rushed in a month or two.
“Some aspects may need to be revisited, but you need to be careful making any kinds of changes to avoid unintended consequences,” Hoskins said. Such amendments often “open up a can of worms,” he said.
Commissioner Marty Tellalian said he would prefer using outside experts to help protect against mistakes, and agreed the system needs to be changed.
“Definitely. It’s difficult for the owners, and it’s difficult for the village,” Tellalian said.