Confusion on historic preservation will be corrected

Opinion

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Doug Gilbert, One View

On behalf of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), I am writing to address some of the recent issues raised by the public and media. This commission is comprised of 11 citizen volunteers appointed by the village president with the consent of the trustees. We are selected for our expertise and commitment to preserving Oak Park's rich and internationally significant architectural heritage.

I believe the HPC has an outstanding group of people who work tirelessly on the public's behalf. Our current commission includes four architects, a restoration contractor, an urban planner and one of Oak Park's most knowledgable historians. We also have three "at large" commissioners, consisting of homeowners who have expressed an interest in preservation, volunteer at one of our many historic sites or have restored their own homes. While some of us have lived here only a few years, many are decades-long or even life-long residents.

Much of the recent concern relates to the HPC's role in reviewing building permits. The HPC uses two documents to guide it: the Preservation Ordinance (municipal law) and the Architectural Review Guidelines. The ordinance gives the HPC its legal authority. It was originally passed by the village board in 1972 and was most recently updated in 1999. This commission is not at liberty to stray from the ordinance. We can neither exceed our governing authority, nor shirk it.

The guidelines serve as the basis on which the HPC makes its permit review decisions, as well as for the public to understand how we make our decisions. The guidelines are also approved by the board.

Section 7-9-9 of the ordinance outlines our review authority. In general, permit reviews in the historic districts are advisory only, and in the past two years, 94 percent of permits reviewed were advisory.

However, the ordinance also dictates that under certain conditions, some projects require a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) before a permit can be issued. These conditions include projects which meet the definition of demolition or receive village funding. Demolition is defined by the ordinance as "the razing or destruction, whether entirely or in significant part, of a building, structure, site or object. Demolition includes the removal of a building or object from its site or the removal or destruction of its fašade or surface."

Unfortunately, some confusion has been generated by statements in the guidelines. The statement on the cover that the HPC's review is "mandatory for Oak Park Landmarks and advisory for other buildings located in Oak Park historic districts," is not entirely accurate when compared to the ordinance for the reasons cited above. However, since it is the guidelines that most people see and read, this has understandably created confusion when a COA is required. I pledge that the HPC will work with the board to clarify the language in the guidelines.

The HPC recognizes that a major construction project is a stressful and difficult process for most homeowners. I believe that this commission does its best to understand homeowners' needs and works to achieve a successful outcome that meets the guidelines. We deny few COA applications and have had very few public hearings/appeals. I believe that is evidence of the willingness of the HPC to work with homeowners to achieve their project goals.

It is, of course, the right for any applicant to request a public hearing and to appeal a decision to the village board.

I encourage anyone living in a historic district and contemplating a renovation or expansion project to contact our staff liaison, Doug Kaarre, at village hall (358-5417). The commission also has a brochure on the permit review process, and our ordinance and guidelines can be found on the village's website.

The efforts, both public and private, over the past 30 years to preserve Wright's Home and Studio, maintain an excellent Historical Society and establish three historic districts are evidence of the commitment of Oak Park to preserve its historic character. This commission will continue to work to maintain the historic character of our village in a manner that is respectful and, frankly, as painless a process as possible for property owners.

? Douglas Gilbert is chair of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.

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