The Forest Park village council hosted an informal public workshop on March 10 to discuss proposed ordinance changes, inform residents, and receiving feedback to make sure a new ordinance covers as many facets of the issue as possible.
Approximately 40 residents came to have their questions answered and to hear about proposed changes that would affect more than half of Forest Park’s property owners.
The most notable issues discussed were two-flats in single-family residential zones, coach houses, which are no longer permitted there, and all buildings labeled as “legal non-conforming.”
“I want to give you all this assurance, and I want everyone to hear this,” said Village Administrator Tim Gillian. “Nothing has been decided. Your job is to help us so that we make the right decision.”
Citing increased density and overcrowding as the main reason for changing the zoning ordinance, Gillian explained that many other towns are figuring out how to phase out the non-conforming buildings.
“We are not the only ones doing this dance,” he said. “Our biggest fear was that we’d make a change without thinking of all possible scenarios. We didn’t want to fix one problem but really in the long run create more. This is what we’re trying to avoid.”
Other reasons named to update the ordinance include inadequate parking, increased traffic, unmanageable garbage and flooding.
The current zoning ordinance specifies that any resident seeking to make additions, alterations and repairs to a legal non-conforming home must go before the Zoning Board of Appeals for a formal hearing. Village officials are seeking to streamline that process.
Under the current zoning rules, structures labeled as legal non-conforming and which undergo more than 50 percent destruction, or are vacant for more than six months, must be rebuilt to conform to the zoning law.
“The reason we give something the label of legal non-conforming is because we want that thing to go away some day,” said Gillian. “Density is a big issue, and we made these changes in previous years because we needed to slow down the building boom.”
Sharon Daly, a Forest Park resident and real estate agent who owns a coach house, said the biggest problem with the current ordinance is that no one was informed about the specifics, and it was not previously enforced.
“The law wasn’t being enforced before, and now it is being enforced zealously,” she said. “The urgency to tackle the problem is because of lenders and people having problems with refinancing.”
Residents at the workshop expressed concerns and objections to some of the language in the proposed changes, specifically the label of a legal non-conforming use or structure, which can complicate matters when owners try to sell, refinance or insure their property.
Mark Maroney, a Forest Park resident, owns a property with a single-family home, a coach house and a garage. He said he was uncertain of what the proposed zoning ordinance means for his property, because he has a coach house.
“I’m a little hesitant to talk to anyone in village hall, because they’re going to tell me to tear something down,” he said.
Officials explained that the village can’t force a resident to tear down a property. Buildings labeled as legal non-conforming can continue to be used, and are grandfathered until a change is desired, a use or structure is abandoned or the building is more than half destroyed. Village officials also added that the new streamlining process would include closer looks on case-by-case basis.
“Every year I get into the same discussion with my insurance company. They won’t give me a new policy because my two-flat is designated as ‘non-conforming,'” said Mary Kay Moynihan, who owns multiple two-flats in an R-1 zone. Since the current zoning ordinance came into effect in 1998, she has had issues with her insurance company and refinancing.
“Why not just say that everything built until now is conforming? It would be so much easier to not throw people into the category of non-conforming and save the owners, and the village, the hassle of paperwork,” Moynihan said, when pressed by Gillian as to what the village stood to gain by removing the designation.
Other villagers echoed her sentiments. One said the zoning changes should be done in a way that will not impede on refinancing, selling or insuring of homes.
“You should not be jerking us around,” he said.
Gillian and planning consultant Jo Ellen Charlton explained that the village would be giving owners whose property is legal non-conforming documentation called a “rebuild letter” that will satisfy insurance companies and banks. This document should prevent any further complications.
Another resident said he really didn’t see the value of the legal non-conforming label. He asked specifically about his property, a two-flat in an R-2 district and was told its “use” is conforming, but if he wanted to make additions or changes, the “structure” would also have to be conforming.
Gillian acknowledged residents’ concerns as fair and said the village was trying to phase out these properties to ease density, while allowing the village a necessary amount of control over the problem.
“I’m glad to get all this feedback, this is what we’re here for,” he said.
The workshop ran nearly two hours, with many residents just beginning to engage in the discussion. Daly was disappointed that the meeting wasn’t longer.
“I don’t think people had enough opportunities,” Daly said. Homes are personal. Sometimes as an official, you just have to let people vent.”
Charlton will be writing the new zoning code in the next couple of weeks. Once that is written, it will be posted on the village Web site and officials will be accepting suggestions for changes or additions for a week. After that process, the text of the new ordinance will go before the village council for a public hearing.
“We still don’t get to talk to each other or share information. I sure don’t see any reason for that. All the information is funneled to one person,” said Daly. “The meeting was a presentation of previously undisclosed information. A lot of things didn’t get explained, but it could have been worse. I think it will be clearer to owners and lenders when the laws are rewritten and unjumbled.”