Too close for comfort

Homeowners' zoning woes come down to 18 inches

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By LAURA STUART

Two weeks ago, Oak Parker Ted Lonergan, spiffily dressed in a suit, tie and bike helmet, peddled his hardly-ever-used bike toward village hall. He was supposed to be on vacation, but a choice made in 1916 set him on this journey instead.

Ted and Alissa Lonergan's small, one-story home on South Humphrey Avenue was built in 1916. Unfortunately, the builder (whoever he was) decided to place the north side of the house 18 inches from the property line, failing to anticipate that almost 90 years later, it would be 18 inches out of compliance with Oak Park's zoning code. And that has turned out to be very bad news for the Lonergans.

If you're affected by such thingsâ€"and it turns out that more than a few Oak Parkers areâ€"you refer to this as the "3-foot rule." And while no one is demanding that homes be shoved over to come into compliance, the rule rears its ugly head when a homeowner wants to add a second story. As the Lonergans learned, you can't go straight up at an out-of-compliance homeâ€"even on its existing footprintâ€"without first being formally excused from the 3-foot rule. That means applying for a zoning variance, which is what led Lonergan to village hall on a hot summer night.

Village officials have started to consider changing the zoning code so homeowners like the Lonergans could build up without all the hassle. In the meantime, the Lonergans did what they had to and got their variance.

But that's the middle of the story. It's better to start at the beginning.

Staying put

More than six years ago, when the couple purchased their first home, "we thought this would be our starter house," says Ted Lonergan. "We thought we'd make some improvements and then move on in Oak Park."

It's a one-story house: two bedrooms (there used to be three, but a previous owner combined two into one large room), a bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. Existing back stairs lead up to an attic space where an average size adult can stand up only in a narrow path down the center. Take a step to either side without bending down, and you're likely to whack your head on the sharply sloped ceiling.

Adequate for two adults with one small child, the house is a tight fit for the Lonergan family that now numbers five, with kids ages 7, 4 and 16 months. The children share the big bedroom, but the baby's outgrowing the crib. Last January, Ted and Alissa decided to look for a bigger house.

What they found on the market was discouraging. "I don't understand it, but $100,000, $125,000 more than we paid for this house will get us the same number of bedrooms with very little improvementâ€"maybe a half bath or another small bedroom. But that doesn't help us," Lonergan sighs.

So after seeing 10 or 12 houses, they decided to stay put. "It was so simple. We'd go up here. Nice and easy," says Lonergan.

They're not alone. Over the last few years, a record number of permits have been issued to Oak Parkers who are adding on instead of moving on.

Lonergan, who does marketing for a financial company but has taught himself home improvement basics, pulled off the attic drywall, took a look, and hired a contractor.

The plan, he explains, is to raise the existing roof 8 feet, keeping the same pitch. The extended walls will go straight up on the existing footprint, but with the extra space they'll gain room for two large and two small bedrooms and a full bathroom.

The 3-foot rule

In March, the contractor submitted paperwork to the village for the necessary permits. In April, the Lonergans received a letter from the village's zoning administrator explaining why their planned addition "can not be approved."

The letter says, in part, "Section 5.3.4 permits additions or enlargements that continue the existing non-conforming building lines of residential buildings, provided that such additions or enlargements are a least 3 feet from any lot line. The proposed project continues the existing building line on the north side, featuring a 1-foot, 6-inch side yard setback, where a minimum of 3 feet is required."

The letter further warns that "stringent standards" govern the granting of a variance, but adds that one can be applied for. "You will need to submit 25 copies of your application packet, accompanied by a $200 application fee," it states ominously.

The Lonergans were faced with two choices: alter the design so the second floor conforms to the zoning code, or apply for the variance. "We considered off-setting the second floor for about 10 seconds," says Lonergan. A setback on the offending north side would look strange; shrinking both sides would create symmetry but considerably diminish the added space. There were also issues around load bearing walls and water run-off.

Those alternatives are "architecturally inappropriate," he believes. And no one will be crowded by the new addition. The two-flat next door to the Lonergans is actually 14 feet from their home.

Village officials, who to a person have treated him "with respect," notes Lonergan, are not unsympathetic to his plight.

"The concept [of altering the zoning code] is under consideration due to the amount of properties that [the 3-foot rule] affects," says Stephen Witt, acting director of Oak Park's Building and Property Standards Department. "We're aware of the hardships. The thought is to allow owners to build straight up on the existing footprint only."

"Initial discussions" have taken place, and the issue is "on the docket for the legal department," he adds. A change in the code would require an amendment and action by the village board.

Witt believes a change is warranted. First, although the 3-foot rule exists to ensure "fire protection, safety between buildings," he explains, the building code provides that protection already: A wall, including windows, closer than 3 feet from the property line must have a "one hour fire resistance rating," a technical requirement stiffer than what's required for an average home.

And further, the Zoning Board of Appeals is spending an inordinate amount of time hearing homeowners' applications for relief from the existing rule. Witt estimates that there have been six appeals since Januaryâ€"each one taking at least 30 minutes of the board's once-a-month meeting time. There were three of them, including the Lonergans', at the last meeting on June 22.

A sign of the times

On April 14, Lonergan submitted his Application for Variation, complete with the permit rejection letter, required responses to seven listed standards for receiving a variance, a letter of support from the owner of the two-flat next door, their warranty deed, affidavit of title, plat of survey and drawings of their proposed plans. And 25 copies. And the $200 fee.

Because the next few months of zoning board meetings already were filled up, the Lonergans couldn't get a hearing date until June 22. Unfortunately, the family had scheduled their vacation at Alissa's parents' time share in Hilton Head, S.C. for the same time. Ted decided to fly home early instead of putting it off another month or more.

On June 1, a large sign appeared on the Lonergans' front lawn. "It was there when I walked in from work, a huge Mylar sign duct-taped to a horse," Ted recalls. It provided detailed information on their variance application and notice of the upcoming hearing.

"My neighbor joked that the sign probably violated some code," he says.

Those signs are popping up all over town. They're required in advance of all zoning variation hearings, explains Witt, by the Zoning Board of Appeals Rules of Procedure, amended in 2004. "It's my understanding that changes were based on people's feeling that there wasn't enough notification," he says. And, in fact, the signs are smaller than they should be.

If the text were as large as required by the rules, "it would take a sheet of plywood," Witt explains. "Four-by-four is as big as people want to see."

Since the family car (and his family) were still in South Carolina on June 22, Lonergan was without a car on the evening of the hearing. That is why he dragged out his old bike, put air in the tires, and arrived early enough to "leave time to wipe off the sweat."

"I was very surprised to be in this room waiting to be heard by seven people [on the zoning board]. I didn't think public speaking would be part of this project. I thought I'd just be writing checks," he confesses.

And in spite of the fact that the board "grilled me pretty good," he says, in the end, they granted the variance. "They were not pleased with some of the elements of the application. One of them said, 'You were lucky today, Mr. Lonergan.'"

It won't get easier. The project will have to comply with the stringent building code standards on fire resistance for a structure inside the 3-foot line. That may explain why the Lonergans just received a "plan review," or correction letter, in reply to their reinstated permit application. It's got six pages of problems that must be addressed, with points from "a," three times through the alphabet, to "jjj."

An optimistic Lonergan hopes he'll be able to get the permits and begin the project soon. He has a way of looking on the bright side.

"At least we don't live in a historic district," he says. "It could be worse."

Those "notice to concerned parties" signs cropping up around Oak Park are required by Section 12.2 of the Zoning Board of Appeals Rules of Procedure, amended March 31, 2004. If you're planning on applying for a variance, expect the large sign to appear on your front yard 15 to 30 days before your hearing.

Here's what the rule requires:

"Notice of public hearings on requests for all variations, special uses or amendments shall be given not more than thirty (30) days nor less than fifteen (15) days before the hearing by publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the Village of Oak Park. Such notice shall include the time and place of the hearing, a general description of the contents of the request to be heard and the address or location of the property to which the request applies. Except in the case of requests for text amendments, the Village shall also post a sign containing this information on the property which is the subject of the application, no less than fifteen days prior to the public hearing. The sign shall be weatherproof, approximately 48-inches by 48-inches, containing one inch minimum type face. Failure to post such sign and or the removal or knocking down (by the Village or others) of the sign after posting, but before the hearing, shall not invalidate, impair or otherwise affect any zoning relief subsequently granted following such public hearing. The sign shall, whenever possible, remain posted until the hearing is completed."

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