In most towns, zoning is dull and pedestrian. Forest Park is not most towns. In most towns, zoning changes incrementally, almost glacially. Not in Forest Park. Here zoning changes in gigantic, overcompensating leaps.
And it seems the town is about ready to take another major leap forward. Or is it leaping backward to correct the last giant leap? It’s hard to tell for sure.
History tells us that Forest Park has philosophical issues with the underlying concept of zoning. How else to explain what happened to the north side of town in the 1960s when a crazy quilt of odd uses and overuses remade half the village in patternless ways that didn’t help then and don’t work now.
Fast-forward 30 years to the 1990s and the village makes a zoning leap that takes it from the frying pan into the fire. Ostensibly to protect from overdevelopment of the south side of town, the village in 1998 upended its code in a way that bizarrely made giant swaths of the core of the village into a category of uses that did not conform to the new zoning ordinance. You’ve heard the term “legal non-conforming” bandied about? That was the result of the 1990s version of zoning roulette in Forest Park.
Now, in 2010, with the economy in the dumper and banks happy to have reasons to turn down applications for mortgages and refinancing, village hall has acknowledged that having much of your housing stock out of sync with your zoning is a real problem. So, to his credit, Tim Gillian, the still-new village administrator, is preparing the ground for the council to re-fix zoning. This being Forest Park, where everything is tight and tighter, Tim Gillian the village administrator now is Tim Gillian the village commissioner then who voted for the initial changes.
Gillian held a village hall meeting on the issue a few weeks back. Last week, in a move we greatly admire, Gillian held another meeting, this one hosted by Citizens United in Forest Park. CUinFP is a grassroots organization in Forest Park that has been on the outs at village hall for years. That Gillian would attend a CUinFP meeting, make a presentation there, and then listen to residents attending and earnestly reply to their concerns says good things about this man.
Those two laudatory meetings aside, we worry that the next batch of zoning changes is coming too quickly. Some worry that the changes coming down the pike don’t go far enough to correct past changes. We worry more about the speed than the content. There’s an election a year off and the sense that the incumbents want to mark this nagging issue off their list early enough to get credit for the change.
Zoning, though, is all in the calibration. Small-bore changes over time work best. It’s the lurching from side to side that sends a complex matter like this right off the rails. More input. More listening. More attention to the details of how changes would be implemented and monitored.
Forest Park needs a fix that will hold for a long while. It needs a reasonable zoning baseline from which it can strategically deviate. It doesn’t need more drama.