This weekend, the Pleasant Home Foundation will offer glimpses into eight unique historic coach houses in the Oak Park area. Long a property perk found only in the estate section of the village, proposed changes to the zoning code may be bringing more newly constructed coach houses to the village.
Alongside a number of proposed regulations including regulations of chicken coops, fences and walls, the village is considering amending zoning ordinances regarding coach houses, which could mean legal apartments above garages popping up in more backyards across the village.
When Oak Park adopted its first zoning laws in 1921, existing coach houses that served as dwelling spaces were grandfathered into the code and became legal, non-conforming dwellings.
After that time, building a coach house as a living space was prohibited. Village Planner Craig Failor said that while residents were permitted to finish rooms over their garages or build new garage spaces with areas above the parking spaces for use, new coach houses could not be used as both sleeping quarters and cooking facilities.
Practically speaking, homeowners choosing this kind of project had to choose between running a water line to the coach house for a bathroom and running a gas line for cooking. Having both a kitchen and a bathroom was prohibited, which kept Oak Parkers from being able to rent out their coach houses.
Since the 1920s, many Oak Park homeowners have constructed new coach houses, but technically speaking, those spaces are limited to use as offices, rec rooms or something other than permanent dwellings.
Failor said that in the 1980s the village conducted a study of coach houses, but no changes were made.
“Now that we’re redoing zoning, we’d like to add the ability to reconsider coach houses,” Failor said.
Time to change
Village Trustee Dan Moroney, a proponent of the changes, says there are benefits to allowing residents to build livable dwellings with both kitchens and bathrooms above their garages.
“One element is that it can provide more affordable housing in the village and give more people an entry point into living in Oak Park,” Moroney said.
Failor says that adding coach houses to the mix would increase housing opportunities in the Oak Park.
“This is a type of affordable housing unit that we don’t really have integrated into our single family home zoning districts,” Failor said. “Most one-bedroom and studio rentals are located in apartment building zones.”
On the flip side, Moroney also thinks homeowners would benefit from the added income to help offset high property taxes.
“This could make homeownership more affordable for homeowners,” Moroney said. “A lot of these homes with 50-foot wide lots have taxes of $25,000 or more.”
Overall, Moroney says the changes expand property rights.
“Where you can expand property rights, it’s a net positive to be more flexible about what people can do with their property,” Moroney said.
Nuts and bolts
Moroney admits that some residents might be miffed about the 6,500-square-foot lot size required for new coach house construction, but says he feels strongly about this part of the ordinance.
“I’m very comfortable saying that not all lot sizes can accommodate two homes,” Moroney said. “We don’t want to create too much density and overbuilding.”
According to Failor, the lot size requirement will likely limit coach houses to certain areas of the village.
“More than likely, every house in the estate section could build a coach house,” Failor said. “Some of the lots in R2 north of Lake [Street] and in the central and northwest corner of the village will also qualify.”
Failor said that even with lot size requirements, there is no restriction in the proposal as to which districts’ homeowners can build a coach house, but he says other village regulations still apply.
Many districts have lot coverage guidelines, which limit what percentage of a lot can be covered with structures. The two districts that do not have lot coverage requirements are still subject to size requirements for houses and accessory buildings, which would essentially serve the same purpose.
Moroney also proposed further guidelines for newly built coach houses.
“Coach houses should be linked to the original structure,” Moroney said. “What you don’t want is a flipper who comes in and buys a large home that is, for example, made of brick, and tacks on a cheaper coach house with vinyl siding. Done right, they can enhance our housing stock. We don’t want to detract from prominent homes.”
Another guideline proposed by Moroney is that coach houses are not taller than the original home.
“Ideally, they would not be more than 75 percent of the original home’s height,” Moroney said. “You look at some of the garage-mahals that have been built, and some of them do compete with the original home.”
Moroney, who has been reaching out to Oak Park residents via Facebook, said that people seem to be in favor of the proposed changes. Failor agreed, saying that the village is aware of homeowners who are in the planning stages of building new coach houses and are waiting to see if the proposals are adopted prior to beginning their projects.
“For the most part, the affordable housing piece is very attractive,” Failor said. “These can be used for a parent, for a child or they can be rented.”
Failor added that the proposed zoning changes will go before the village board sometime this fall and, if implemented, will be effective immediately.
One thing to keep in mind? Just like any home addition that adds livable square footage, building a new coach house or making an existing space livable will, like any home improvement, likely have repercussions on your property taxes.