Preservation Commission needs reform, and common sense

Opinion

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David Thomas, One View

I clearly remember the reporting and quoting from the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in WEDNESDAY JOURNAL regarding the then-newly anointed Gunderson district. I laughed out loud at the way the HPC was soft-peddling the limits of their authority. My wife and I went through this process almost a year earlier, and we knew better.

Given our experience, we know it is disingenuous for anyone sitting on the Historic Preservation Commission to ever express that their role is advisory only. Whenever a homeowner in a historic area wants to make exterior improvements, the Building Code Commission (BCC) will not grant a hearing unless that homeowner has a Certificate of Appropriateness from HPC. Without a code hearing, a homeowner can not obtain the building permit. It's de-facto summary judgment, and without due process.

If a homeowner is frustrated by HPC, the only recourse available is to go before the Oak Park village board, which on paper gives the appearance of due process. Evidently, there is no case yet where the trustees sided with the desires of the homeowner.

In our particular project, members of the HPC took a dim view of our plans. Our architect negotiated very well, and we did eventually get our COA form. It was a fight, however, and several things struck me about the process, such as who gave these particular people their seats on the commission? Why didn't I have a say in it? Exactly what are their qualifications? It's truly a shadowy bunch, and my guess is that few, if any members of the commission present for our judgment are living in Oak Park just three years later.

The opinions expressed during the process were not only subjective, they were based on little historical evidence or none at all. The main shred of any history came from a photograph and caption in a book on the Ridgeland Historic District which the HPC itself had published. The book has no footnotes, citations, or even a bibliography. It is a commemorative item rich in speculation, thin on genuine historical research.

One particular issue brought up at the very end of the first hearing was quite memorable. One member wanted to consider the domino effect of our project. He was negatively concerned that allowing us to expand our home would encourage other homeowners on the block to do the same.

Now, fast forward to our building code hearing. Very different group, perusing the plans as our architect confidently guides them and responds to questions. After some 20 long minutes of quiet deliberation, we are told: this is great, we love the plan, we hope this encourages your neighbors to enlarge their homes.

Perhaps it is simply too much to ask local government to be consistent. I understand HPC and BCC are two entirely different entities with very different concerns. But this is our local government, and it is obvious from the reporting on the Gunderson porch issue that the current HPC is freely interpreting ordinances and the reach of their advice, without any checks to their authority to do so. They're even trying to duck what was reported and stated to the residents by a previous commission, as if they alone define their obligations to the villagers.

If no one wants to tighten the language of their authority, then I believe it is time to shake out this little fiefdom, and place some real homeowners on the HPC?#34;perhaps reserve three seats to folks who have lived in Oak Park for, say, at least 10 years. Maybe they maintain a nice front yard garden, TIVO restoration programs, or maybe some homeowners who have experienced one or two renovations.

The most ironic element to the Gunderson porch story is that if it were truly researched, I'd bet one would discover the original choice of large round columns was based more on immediate availability than anything aesthetic. Someone with common sense needs to be on the HPC to ask, in each and every review, what exactly is it we're trying to preserve?

Ode to the Porch

There's a place where we all gather

Going home we would not rather

What's shared here, here will stay

We can talk about everything, any day

Glad to have this time together

Talking on the porch in any weather

Brings out caring, sharing, fun

We're joined together, everyone

Thank you, friends, and thanks, calm night,

Getting it all out helps make things right

It may take time, however, that's just fine

We need have patience, take our time

Let go of sadness, embrace the future

This is what life's all about

No doubt.

Agnes M. Stempniak
Oak Park

Editor's note: When Ms. Stempniak penned this poem (which recently won an award), the Gunderson porch issue had not yet surfaced.

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