The River Forest Historic Preservation Commission may expand community outreach as part of a two-pronged approach to safeguard the community’s 296 architecturally and historically significant homes.

After varying segments of the community told him that the village’s eight-year-old historic preservation ordinance needed attention, commission Chairman Dave Franek recently asked commissioners to find ambiguous and confusing language in the ordinance, which members have described as toothless.

The heightened level of activity and the entire approach the commission wants to take comes as a result of the razing of the storied Mars Mansion in September. 

Amendments, which will be discussed by the commission and then brought before village trustees sometime early next year, will seek to strengthen the ordinance, particularly in the area of demolition. 

Increasing the amount of community outreach would, according to Commissioner Tom Zurowski, would raise the volume on the conversation and help residents understand the varied roles that preservation plays in improving the community. 

Ideas under review include:

Becoming a Certified Local Government. Certified Local Government is a federal program that offers grants for rehabilitation work, educational programs and training. A CLG community could also get general preservation assistance.

Asking owners of River Forest homes on the National Register or in the National Register District for permission to landmark their properties. Now the property owner is the only person who can nominate his property. 

Landmarking affords increased protections, particularly in the area of demolition. The only landmarked properties in the village include stone markers at the entrance to River Forest and one home. 

Adding flow charts to the village’s webpage that will make more user-friendly the processes of seeking certificate of appropriateness for exterior changes, the hearing process and landmarking.

Doing more public education on the ordinance and historic preservation. Only two presentations have been made in the past couple of years. One was on the ordinance, the other on the architectural survey that identified structures of significant and historic character. 

Providing more information on federal and state incentives and tax credits to owners of properties on the National Register.

Giving presentations to Realtors periodically to explain the ordinance and how it works and provide resources they can use to cast a wider net and find owners who would be interested in maintaining and restoring old homes.

Listing significant properties that are for sale in newsletters and magazines of Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other similar publications. 

“There was a feeling in the community that the loss of the Mars Mansion highlighted that the current ordinance does not achieve the desired goals whether that included allowing sufficient time for potential alternatives to demolition to be discussed or to limiting demolitions,” Zurowski said. “The commission was taking that as an opportunity to look at the entire process and try to respond.”

Other commission members said the outreach will go a long way toward protecting the community’s cultural heritage. The commission can’t do much without the support of the community, Commissioner Carla Graham-White said.

The commission has tried in the past, and “continues to try to make it known in the community that the commission is a resource. There is no lack of ideas of what we can do [toward this end],” Commissioner Laurel McMahon said.

Village President Catherine Adduci, who made working on historic preservation one of her goals during her recent state of the village address, said she was pleased the commission was looking at this in a balanced, comprehensive way.

“We want to look at restoring and not demolishing our homes,” Adduci said. “We need to educate homeowners and find homeowners who are interested in restoring our architecturally significant homes. This is encouraging.”

Currently, a certificate of appropriateness must be issued before the owner of a home in the village’s historic district can get a demolition permit. The Historic Preservation Commission rejected the request for the Mars Mansion, but because the action only was advisory, the owner, who was not present at that hearing, got a permit 45 days after the hearing. The home was razed. 

Amendments, first brought up in February, would require the owners of significant properties to discuss a proposed demolition before the commission. Neighbors, the community, other interested parties and the commission could comment on the demolition and suggest alternatives. 

The commission would then have the option of approving or denying the demolition. A denial could be appealed to the board of trustees. The owner may have to wait as much as six months before a permit could be issued.

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