Unless River Forest wants one-size-fits-all zoning, the village board, next Monday night, should reject zoning amendments that would end the flexibility provided by case-by-case reviews of proposals to expand a building that doesn’t conform to the village’s minimum zoning requirements for side yards.

Most River Forest homes were built long before this society realized that houses ought to be more than 6 feet apart. As an old community, River Forest has countless homes closer than the minimum 10 feet required under our more modern living standards and current zoning.

An existing house that is 3 feet from the property line could not be built that close to its neighbor today. It doesn’t conform with today’s zoning. Currently, if you want to make this nonconforming use even larger, you’ve got to get a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) by showing that expanding your nonconforming use will not generate adverse impacts on your neighbor’s property, change the character of the neighborhood, and meet all the standards for a variance.

But the proposed zoning text amendments would allow homeowners to expand all nonconforming encroachments into the side yard even though they could not be built today — without regard to any adverse impacts on adjacent homes. Should every expansion of a nonconformity be allowed without first factually determining that the proposed expansion won’t cause flooding next door, won’t block off the light and air to the neighbors, won’t alter the neighborhood character, and won’t adversely affect the neighbors?

Or should an owner have to demonstrate to a fact-finding body — the ZBA — that expanding this nonconformity, which could not be built today, will not cause more harm than good? Shouldn’t the owner who wants to do something that is not allowed of new construction show that her proposal won’t harm the neighborhood and that there isn’t any other way to build except by making the non-conformity even larger?

If the fee to apply for this variance is a burden on applicants — no factual evidence was presented to the ZBA to suggest that it is — why not greatly reduce the fee for a side-yard variance or eliminate the fee?

The ZBA conducted two nights of hearings and produced thoughtful findings of fact you can view at www.riverforestmatters.com and see River Forest’s planning consultant’s illustrations which clearly show that this amendment would allow homes to be expanded even when the expansion would block light and air from adjacent homes, block views, or cause flooding on an adjacent property — leading to extremely large structures that are incompatible and incongruous with the surrounding neighborhood.

It’s been suggested that a town like River Forest can’t have a one-size-fits-all zoning code. That’s exactly why the village board should reject the zoning amendments that would end the Zoning Board of Appeals’ case-by-case review of the handful of proposals to expand homes and garages into a non-conforming side yard.

A member of River Forest’s Zoning Board of Appeals since 2010, Daniel Lauber, AICP, is a city planning consultant and zoning attorney, principle author of Oak Park’s award-winning Comprehensive Plan 1979, and a past president of the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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