The fine art of building permits in Oak Park needs to be refined

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Garret Eakin


The thought of having to apply for and obtain a building permit brings anxiety and stress to the process of improving our property.

My clients, the experienced and the naïve, always ask do we really need to get a permit for this small project? Construction by its nature is disruptive. The process of applying for and obtaining a sanction from the local authorities is challenging and as far as I can tell one municipality is as thorny as the next.

In Chicago, it is assumed that you will need to retain a permit expediter to get the plans approved. Horror stories are ramped about the unexpected and potential cost implications. Of course there are two sides to each story, with the staffing reduced at the building departments responding to the current recession we have slower response time. This is maddening to the architects, builders and owners where time is money.

The building department states on the Oak Park village website, "Home improvements and building upkeep are favorite pastimes in Oak Park with its historic districts, architectural heritage and older housing stock. Building projects must meet village code and zoning requirements, and permits and inspections are the mechanisms in place to assure compliance."

To help managed the time for review we suggest the following strategies:

One, keep it simple. Limit the amount of information on the drawings to what the reviewer needs to know. Omit design details, schedules, interior elevations and unneeded sections focusing on the code, ADA, energy and zoning issues.

Two, schedule a walk thru with the building inspector to discuss the scope of the project. This service is encouraged in Oak Park by the chief building inspector to reduce frustration and speed reviews.

Three, avoid the temptation of fighting city hall. Few of us have time for a war, although we all have the right to challenge the building department interpretation of the zoning and codes. This is not our objective, nor expertise. Most departments work as teams which can result in conflicting judgments. Sometimes two inspectors review the drawings and often more than one perform the on-site reviews, causing conflict. Your best hedge against this issue is to retain an experienced builder that has good sub-contractors, thorough knowledge of the codes and knows all the inspectors of which they have earned respect. Our building department is known as going by the book regardless of who you are or what the project is.

Four, if you are in a historic district see Doug Kaarre the preservation staff liaison for a review and advice on any issues concerning historic materials. Basically, if the work or addition cannot be seen from the street preservation has no power. Doug and the Historic Preservation Commission are available for advice and consultation regarding best practices. Following his review, see Mike Bruce in zoning. Both are readily accessible on the upper level of Village Hall. This can save you a week by being proactive. From there, one can go directly to submit three approved plans for the building permit.

Five, forget the phone. The staff is over worked and understaffed; therefore they answer questions as they get to them. In contrast, the building process is always a fast paced schedule. I have never had the luxury of time to wait two, three maybe four days for a return call. I have been waiting for two weeks for a preliminary review of a renovation project. Something is clearly broken here and our leadership should be aware of and working on the problem.

An excellent reference to have is a seven page document written by seasoned architect Frank Heitzman entitled How to procure a building permit in Oak Park, IL., for the Oak Park Architectural League. This is an insider point of view based on a career of residential and commercial work in Oak Park. Unfortunately, not much has changed since its writing in 2007.

Change needs to happen to this important service. This is intended to be a bit of a squeaky wheel. And by oiling the process, improving professionalism and relieving the intimidation factor, I hope we can bring the fine back to the art of the building department.

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Katelyn Power  

Posted: August 22nd, 2019 11:58 AM

Where can I find a copy of that document?


Posted: May 15th, 2012 5:08 PM

Thank you for writing this. When I first moved to Oak Park I couldn't quite understand the whole "in the window" thing for permission to work, building permits, etc.. Where I'm from you build it, somebody comes to make sure it isn't going to kill anybody, and it's a largely hands-off, painless process. We need to make it easier not just for this type of permit, but the general attitude of regulation here overall. It should be quick, easy, and not difficult to understand or navigate.

C Birkentall from Oak park  

Posted: May 15th, 2012 4:52 PM

A very useful tool is the epermits online at: Many building replacement items can be permitted from here including roofing, mechanical and windows. Advice to keep it simple is a valid one, but the process still needs to be overhauled.

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