We recently received a letter from the Historic Preservation Commission announcing a public hearing regarding a neighbor's plans to repair their front porch. We knew this was coming but are still confused about why these friends are facing a delay in obtaining a building permit for the work. You see, like many other homeowners, when the Gunderson Historic District was approved by the village board in 2002, we were assured by the trustees and staff that the Historic Preservation Commission would act in an advisory capacity.
Advisory is not the case for the owners of 747 S. Gunderson Ave. They presented plans to the Building Department, which were denied after a review by the commission. Richard Carroll and Joyce Hopkins, the owners, were again denied a "Certificate of Appropriateness" by the commission on March 17, causing them to request a public hearing on their application. The public hearing, according to the notice we received, was scheduled for Monday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the Village Council Chambers. All property owners in the Gunderson Historic District probably should have attended the hearing if they have any plans for their homes.
Our neighbors are planning to rebuild their front porch deck and stairs. The problem, according to the Historic Preservation Commission, is that they also are planning to replace the two support columns for the porch roof. It doesn't seem to matter to the commission that Mr. Carroll and Ms. Hopkins propose to use a style similar to two other houses in the Gunderson district. The commission has determined that the work can only proceed if they replace the columns with an identical set of round columns. The commission, it seems, has declared their round columns unique, although there are several similar-styled front porches on both Elmwood and Gunderson avenues, making these particular columns less than unique. When our neighbors pointed out that fact to the commission on March 17, they were advised that their columns were the thickest in the district. Can you say "nitpicking?"
Details of the porch design aside, where does the commission get the authority to demand compliance with their edict? Wasn't their role intended to be advisory? Indeed, the "Architectural Review Guidelines" under which the commission is supposed to operate state, "Guidelines are mandatory for Oak Park Landmarks and advisory for other buildings in historic districts." Those guidelines also contained words such as "may" or "shall," which seem to indicate some latitude for the homeowners. Under the porch policy section, it says, "If existing historic porches have deteriorated or become badly damaged, they may be replaced in the same size and shape with appropriate materials."
Apparently the commission bases its claim of authority over the homeowners on what they cite as the demolition of the front porch. The aforementioned guidelines define demolition as the "razing or destruction, whether entirely or in significant part of a building." What needs to be made clear to everyone is that Mr. Carroll and Ms. Hopkins only plan to replace the style of the columns on their porch with something similar to other porches in the neighborhood. Other round columns will continue to grace the area.
The guidelines do not define the word "advisory." But, as previously noted, trustees are on the record in local newspapers claiming that the Historic Preservation Commission would have advisory authority over the plans of Gunderson district homeowners. In the minutes of the June 17, 2002 board meeting, approving the establishment of the Gunderson Historic District, "Village Planner Doug Kaarre explained that the ordinance 'will provide advisory review on alterations ... as well as provide protection from inappropriate demolition within the district.'"
The Commission should be hard-pressed on April 18 to explain how the alterations planned by Richard Carroll and Joyce Hopkins for their porch are inappropriate. The newly reconstituted board of trustees should rein in the Historic Preservation Commission and clearly define their role so that other homeowners in all of the historic districts are not prevented from improving their homes and the community.