The forum that Citizens United in Forest Park hosted last week on changes coming to the village’s zoning and building codes ran longer than the two hours expected. As library staffers were looking to close for the night, village officials and a few of the 28 attendees who’d filled the library’s downstairs meeting room had to be scooched out.
Among those wishing for more time was Fire Chief Steve Glinke, who, at 8:37 p.m., found he’d been left less than half an hour to cover proposed revisions to the building code. Thanking Village Administrator Tim Gillian for warming up the crowd with talk of “legal non-conforming structures and uses,” Glinke started in with, “I’m thinking about shopping a reality show on zoning codes.”
Even before the fire chief’s “who knew?” ribbing about the high level of interest, it was clear Thursday night that discussion of the clunky phrasing in Forest Park’s tricky residential zoning laws is anything but a snoozer. As Mayor Tony Calderone, Gillian and the village planning consultant, Jo Ellen Charlton, tag-teamed to introduce what’s happening, why it’s happening and how concerned residents can make the effort better, people in the audience respectfully but tersely called out, “It’s taken a lot of time to do this,” “It’s been slow in coming,” and “Will there be some consistency in enforcement this time around?”
A number of questions from the audience, several of which were specific to their properties, were answered by the panelists.
This meeting, hosted by the community watchdog group better known as CUinFP, was the second public discussion in two weeks on proposed zoning changes that would affect more than half of Forest Park’s property owners. The first forum, which was held at village hall two weeks ago and hosted by the village’s elected officials, drew about 40 residents. Half of the audience members at last week’s meeting weren’t at the March 11 meeting.
By law, before any changes can be made to the zoning code, there must be one public hearing law in front of the zoning board of appeals. These two meetings are, according to the village’s Web site, an effort to address critics who have commented that the process can feel like “a done deal and that there is no real consideration given to public input.”
Calderone opened the zoning discussion by saying Forest Park isn’t alone in trying to reconcile 20th-century municipal standards with much-older housing stock.
“It’s not surprising for a community our age to have a mish-mash,” Calderone told the group, later referring to the village’s housing pattern – where a block can have single-family houses, two-flats, three-flats and a high-rise – as “the Old Country Buffet of zoning.”
“Many of those instances happened because of the absence of zoning codes,” Calderone said, referring to post-World War II conversions of two-story houses to create, for example, in-law apartments with the addition of a staircase.
“We think there’s a way to make life easier for many people – not all, but many,” Calderone said.
Gillian opened his presentation by underscoring why the changes are being considered, and for which non-conforming uses the changes are being considered: two-flats in an R1 zone, meaning single-family residential. “The last thing we want to do is stifle someone trying to improve their property,” Gillian said, emphasizing that making things easier for property owners seeking refinancing is the driving force, not the complications of overcrowding and density, which were noted in a Review report of the March 11 meeting.
What’s being considered
The changes being talked about, if approved by the village council, would make financing and insurance less challenging for two-flats in an area zoned for single-family houses. Coach houses and three-flats aren’t part of the current discussion.
Both Calderone and Gillian gave the history of two-flats in an R1 zone.
Such a use of residential property, though legal at the time the property was built (when there were few or no zoning laws in Forest Park), became “non-conforming” after notable zoning changes in 1998.
Amid a building boom back then, there was concern that developers would keep squishing as much living space as possible onto every lot. This worry, the mayor told the audience, led commissioners to not allow new construction of two-flats on lots with single-family homes. Existing two-flats were allowed by being grandfathered in.
Initially, such a restriction meant that, when property owners wanted to add a deck or make another improvement, they had to seek official approval through the zoning board and perhaps the village council – a process that cost time and money. Eventually, as the economy weakened and lending tightened, the “non-conforming” status came to have another effect – a virtual deal-breaker in seeking money to improve a property or cover its replacement cost.
Why it’s happening
“The banks have scared us. The insurance companies have scared us,” Charlton told the crowd. “Right now, our code says that if it burns down, you can’t build it back. We’ll change the code to give you a letter to say you can build it back.”
A change in the zoning ordinance, according to Charlton, would provide rights to the owner of a two-flat that would be the same rights an owner would have for a single-family house. Should it ever became necessary to rebuild this kind of an income-producing property, the owner would not be answering a bank’s “How is it zoned?’ question with a phrase that has a negative in it.
In an interview this week with the Review about how underwriters look at zoning of two-flats and coach houses, Dan Watts, president of Forest Park National Bank, confirmed that the “legal non-conforming” phrase “can create some concern for a lender when the additional income source isn’t legally available.”
How you can make the effort better
“Throw questions at us, folks. We’re still gathering input,” Gillian told the property owners at the meeting, listing his e-mail address and Charlton’s: