River Forest
River Forest village trustees expecting to hear from residents on the issue of historic preservation Monday night got far more than they expected. For much of an almost four-hour meeting, the issues attendant to a historic preservation ordinance and the topic of the preservation of neighborhood character in River Forest were front and center before the board. In spite of a good deal of comment and discussion, there was no resolution.

In the end, as the clock approached 11 p.m., trustees continued further public comment and discussion of the ordinance to their July 10 board meeting, at which time several people who were unable to speak will make their case.

“I hope this gets a lot more public scrutiny,” said Village President Frank Paris of the proposed ordinance. Indeed, whatever ordinance, if any, is eventually enacted by the board, it will most likely undergo significant changes during what is almost certain to be a drawn-out process.

After a nearly 30-month process that saw a proposed historic preservation ordinance kicked back to its ad hoc committee for a major overhaul last fall, the village board sat back just prior to 10 p.m., Monday to hear public comment on the issue.

“You asked us to go away and do some things [to the proposed ordinance] and we’ve tried to do that,” Committee Chairman Gerald L. Johnson said. He then brought up Committee Co-chair Laurel McMahon to give a brief review of the process since a historic district was established in 1977 and outline the proposed ordinance.

Stressing that no outside individuals, or “third parties” could designate a property as historic, McMahon said the mandatory aspects of the ordinance as proposed were largely limited to properties whose owners had voluntarily sought historic landmark status. The proposed ordinance was primarily educational and advisory in nature, offering several steps intended to slow down any rush to demolish a historically significant property.

The historic district, McMahon said, was “an honor that should be publicized and promoted as a significant part of community pride.”

Without an ordinance, neighborhoods that had evolved over 125 years, McMahon added, could be irrevocably altered by one property owner.

“I believe these steps speak for people who have lived in this community and who have invested more than money,” she said.

Opponents attack

The ordinance’s opponents, though, were far more concerned with what they argued was a broad-based and legally unwarranted assault on property rights. Local attorney and Oak Park-based real estate developer Joe Spillane castigated the proposal on an array of fronts, calling it a threat to property rights that would place too much power over private property in too few hands with insufficient review and appeal that would burden property owners with an additional layer of bureaucracy and diminish property values. In addition, he questioned whether the months-long drafting process was in compliance with the state’s Open Meeting Act.

“This is not an educational tool. This would fundamentally alter property rights,” said Spillane, who called the proposed ordinance “fatally flawed and legally unsupportable.”

Spillane said that as proposed, the ordinance went overboard “geographically and legally” and would include over half the properties in the village.

Calling for a referendum on the issue to be placed before the voters, Spillane said, “Even well-intentioned people are capable of making bad decisions.”

Another attorney and village resident, Doug Andersen, supported several of Spillane’s contentions, and argued that the drafting process hadn’t been open enough.

“The process was insufficient to give you confidence of broad support by the community,” he said.

Arthur Goldberg, who is both a member of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and a staunch property rights advocate, calmly noted that he spent much time, energy and money improving his home over 26 years. Goldberg said his home was his investment in the future, and that the decision of what to do with his property should be his and no one else’s.

“If the time comes that I can sell my house, I should reap the benefit of my decision],” Goldberg said. “You can’t make people do what they don’t want to do [with their homes]. It’s voluntary. Don’t make it mandatory, please.”

Changing ‘neighborhood character’

Before trustees had a chance to take up the proposed ordinance, it heard public comment from resident Mark Kleinkopf and seven other neighbors concerning a property on the 600 block of Franklin Street.

Neighbors vehemently objected to what they characterized as the legally unnoticed division of a property at 620 Franklin, a large stucco home that sits on a double lot, measuring 100 feet across. The house and land is reportedly under contract to a developer who intends to demolish the house and build a new house on each parcel. That, argued Kleinkopf and others, would seriously alter the open, spacious character of the block, which is dominated by houses on wide lots.

For over an hour, those neighbors pushed the trustees to give them what they said amounted to due process regarding an appeal of a decision in a Dec. 15, 2005 letter from the village to the property’s trustee, informing him that two separate homes could be built on the two properties. That decision was based on the fact that the property is actually listed as two separate 50-foot lots on the Cook County County Assessor’s tax rolls. A check of the assessor’s website does, in fact, show two separately indexed properties, 620 Franklin and 616 Franklin. The 616 parcel is listed as “Vacant land under common ownership with adjacent residence.” The village board last year decided to base decisions on joined parcels of land on how the properties are registered with the Cook County Assessor’s Office, which suggests an unfettered right to redevelop the two properties separately.

While several trustees were generally sympathetic to the neighbor’s concerns, they questioned whether a mechanism actually existed for neighbors to appeal a property owner’s application.

“I don’t know that anyone anticipated that an appeal would come from anyone [other than] the owner,” said Trustee Al Swanson.

Trustee Michael O’Connell said he was unclear regarding the legal grounding of any instructions to the River Forest Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), saying, “I’m not going to send an instruction to the zoning board that’s illegal.” But Kleinkopf argued that he had made an appeal “within 28 days” of learning about the letter on May 16, at which point, he said, he became “an aggrieved party,” eligible to appeal the village’s decision. The language of the zoning ordinance, he said, makes no distinction regarding who may file an appeal to the process, regardless of whether or not there is a mechanisnm for informing others of any village staff decision.

Kleinkopf acknowledged that the zoning code has “two very different set of metrics, that could be applied to the 620 Franklin situation. But he noted that Section 10.4.1 of the code (“Interpretation”) stipulates that whenever there are two conflicting sections in the code, “the more restrictive” section must apply. Kleinkopf then handed over a copy of the applicable section of the ordinance for O’Connell to read.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to send the issue back to the zoning board for a full hearing, hopefully sometime in July. In the meantime the village will not issue any demolition or building permits for the properties, Village Administrator Chuck Biondo said.

Biondo said Tuesday that a ZBA hearing would be scheduled “as soon as we can assure a quorum.”

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