The River Forest village board Monday night continued to struggle with two competing desires: to preserve historic homes while not impinging on property rights.

Thrown into the mix were teardowns, an issue that came to the fore recently with homes built on double lots being demolished to build a home on each lot.

At the board’s regular meeting Monday night, Trustee Patrick O’Brien said the teardown issue is the No. 1 concern of villagers he talks with. Two homes have been demolished in the past two weeks, 510 Ashland and 833 Clinton, he said.

“I’m very, very upset at the number of homes being torn down in our community,” O’Brien said. “A lot of people are fed up with the lack of oversight, if nothing else.”

O’Brien proposed a 90-day moratorium on all teardowns of single-family homes “until this village board reviews and adopts this historic preservation ordinance that we’ve been kicking around the past year.”

Trustee Al Swanson supported the moratorium, saying he’s consistently heard villagers raise the issue. “It’s a matter of very serious concern for our residents,” he said.

However, other board members pointed out that a historic preservation ordinance wouldn’t necessarily stop the teardowns O’Brien cited, nor the matter of 620 Franklin, where an old house is slated for demolition to be replaced by two new homes.

The board will discuss the possibility of a moratorium at its next meeting, Sept. 25, but a straw poll after the meeting would suggest approval of the moratorium is unlikely.

“A moratorium for the sake of a moratorium doesn’t make sense,” said Trustee Russell Nummer after the meeting.

Trustee Michael O’Connell agreed, saying the board is too far away from approving a historic preservation ordinance to hang it as a finish line for a moratorium. For a moratorium to make sense, he said, the village would need to be headed toward passing “something wiser and better” than what’s on the books now.

Village President Frank Paris asked trustees if they wanted to reconsider an ordinance passed last year allowing for teardowns on double lots to produce two new homes in certain situations. Amid discussion, Paris reiterated what he called the “very simple question” of whether the board wanted to reconsider the matter.

Although no one answered the question directly, it became clear that the board still leaned in favor of preserving property rights over a desire to control the size or character of housing.

Paris said teardowns allow a village to stay the same by changing, meaning the freedom to choose what one’s house looks like will change with styles, but people should have the opportunity to build what they like.

If the historic preservation ordinance had been in place during Frank Lloyd Wright’s time, none of his homes would have been built, Nummer said.

Nummer and other trustees said they don’t personally like modern homes that look like “spaceships,” but Nummer said, “We shouldn’t use a historic preservation ordinance to stop them.”

Village Atty. Jon Gilbert tried to clarify trustees’ thoughts, saying the ordinance ought to protect geographic areas of homes, individual homes, or both. He suggested eliminating the existing historic district and redraw it.

“Historic districts aren’t drawn by throwing darts at a wall,” Gilbert said. “They’re drawn based on established criteria.”

The board agreed to protecting homes voluntarily identified for preservation but was split on whether third parties (people other than the homeowner) could identify homes for protection.

“Maybe everybody wants [historic preservation] if it’s not their house,” said Trustee Barbara Graham.

O’Connell said residents he’s heard from don’t want their property rights taken away by a historic preservation ordinance. He said he’s read 50-60 of the ordinances online to see if there is a municipality that had one he liked.

“The more ordinances you see, [you realize] either you want it or you don’t,” O’Connell said.

The village has hired the planning services of John Houseal, a River Forester and principal with Naperville-based Houseal Lavigne Associates to help with the historic preservation ordinance. Staff members suggested Houseal mediate the next board discussion to help the board reach consensus.

After the meeting, Paris said he expected work on the preservation ordinance to be “accelerated” at the next meeting.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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