An Oak Park family who lost their house to a fire in early December is breathing easy this week with the village of Oak Park's recent approval for them to rebuild.
But they say the last few months of navigating Oak Park's "disjointed permit process" left them wondering if they would be stranded in temporary housing for months.
"There is no consideration given to people who have lost their homes to a casualty loss," said Miguel Zarate, whose home at 719 S. Humphrey Ave. remains a burned-out shell.
Oak Park officials told Wednesday Journal they would consider a change in policy that might move permit applications for projects linked to fire loss to the front of the queue.
It all began on Dec. 7, 2016 when Zarate's family of four was displaced by an early morning fire. No one was injured in the blaze – Zarate is married with two children ages eight and 10 – and insurance has covered temporary housing.
But Zarate said in early May – prior to the village approving the building permit –multiple rejections of his permit application left him wondering how long the process would take and whether his temporary housing covered by insurance would run out.
The permit went through multiple rounds of rejections by the village, each time for a different reason, Zarate said.
He filed the initial application on March 22 and waited. About a month later, he went to village hall to inquire on the permit's status and was told it had been rejected by a third-party consulting firm, HR Green, for about 20 to 30 problems with the proposal.
Zarate said he was not perturbed by the rejection but did not understand why the village had not informed him that it had even taken place.
The plans were updated by Zarate's architect and contractor and resubmitted a couple of days later. On April 27, Zarate said HR Green had cleared the application and that the permit was approved.
But Zarate's contractor went in the next day to pick up the building permit only to learn that it had been rejected again – but this time by the village's building department. The reason was because the plan lacked necessary water service upgrades for the new home and an explanation of how the installation in the public way would be handled, according to Zarate.
Again, the contractor resubmitted the proposal a few days later and again was rejected. This time they needed the architectural drawings and engineering plans to reflect the water service updates, Zarate said.
He acknowledged that the confusion does not rest solely with the village – his contractor should have been aware of the water upgrades requirements – but having to return to village hall and be rejected over different issues made the process frustrating and confusing, he said.
Zarate said he thinks the village could have done more to help guide him through the process, like notifying him immediately when HR Green first rejected the proposal and reviewing the project at the same time as the third-party contractor to prevent multiple rounds of rejections.
The plan also should have been given special consideration because of the circumstances of their displacement, Zarate said. Instead, he was put in the same permit review queue as people applying to build additions onto their houses or for developers with plans to upgrade their kitchens, he said.
"I very easily could have taken the [insurance] money and left Oak Park," he said.
According to Zarate, Tammie Grossman, Oak Park's director of development customer services, apologized for the rejection and said one month was a short period of time for review and that village policy puts all applicants in the same queue regardless of circumstance.
Grossman said in a telephone interview that she and others at village hall told Zarate to have his architect come in to talk to building officials to work out the problems and the permit would be issued "over the counter."
That never happened, Grossman said.
"We said the architect needs to come in and work this out; once he did that [Oak Park Chief Building Official] Steve [Cutaia] issued permits that day," Grossman said.
Cutaia contacted Zarate in early May and apologized for the confusion and said he was not aware of the family's situation, according to Zarate.
Cutaia said in a telephone interview with Wednesday Journal that the village is "adamant about getting these out the door as soon as possible."
He said the policy for putting everyone in the same queue for review should be updated.
"Tammie and I will review the policy on how to handle these special ones in the future and examine them in a different fashion," he said.
Grossman said in an interview that all projects "get put in the same queue, but I said to him that now [the situation concerning the fire] was brought to my attention, we would put a rush on it, but we needed to sit down with the architect to do that."
"I don't believe we delayed the permits," she said.
Grossman said that the time it takes for the village to review permits has dropped substantially over the last three years, following the reorganization of the building department in 2014.
"In the past – three years ago – this project would have taken four to five months [to review]; now it's down to a few weeks," she said.
She added that Zarate also had the option to pay double the fee for the application permit to be moved to the front of the line, an option provided to permit applicants at village hall, but did not.
Grossman said that the delay also was due in part to the fact that the plans submitted used the Chicago building code and not Oak Park's.
"That cause delays," she said. "It's incumbent upon the architect to know the codes of the jurisdiction in which they submit their plans."
Cutaia said that the village averages two or three new home construction projects a year.
"It's very uncommon in this town," he said.
That's why the permit application review is sent to third-party vendors like HR Green, according to Cutaia.
"We're focused on a timely turnaround," he said. "If we can't handle them, we email them to HR Green."
He said that although he understands the difficulty of being displaced due to a fire, everyone who applies for permits building permits need the application approved quickly.
"A lot of people are out of their homes because of construction," he said. "It may not have been a fire, but there are time constraints when it comes to loans and people during construction."
Cutaia added that his "door is always open" to those going through the permit application process.
Zarate's permit was approved on May 5.
* This story was updated to include additional comments from Tammie Grossman and Steve Cutaia.
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