RF historic preservation ordinance crawls forward

Rewrite, hearing urged prior to village board vote

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The River Forest village board spent 90 minutes discussing a draft version of a historic preservation ordinance Monday night. In the end, they had taken a few small steps toward consensus, but still had major differences of opinion on how to balance preserving the village's character with protecting individuals property rights.

The trustees sent the draft back to Village Atty. Jon Gilbert with directions to make several key changes to the wording before forwarding it to the Historic Preservation Committee for further review.

That ad hoc committee that has spent the past 2 1/2 years developing the ordinance. A final public hearing will be held some time in September in order to gain additional public opinion prior to village trustees formally deliberating on the issue.

While there is wide general support for such an ordinance, there appears to remain considerable anxiety regarding the diminution of property rights under any such law.

Polling his colleagues, Trustee Al Swanson got them to agree that there are both historically and architecturally significant structures in the village, that those structures "improve the ambience" of the village, and that they need some form of protection.

When President Pro-tem Barbara Graham asked whether any trustee was "completely against" any ordinance in any form, no one spoke up. However, there were serious concerns raised regarding how to effect the desired preservation protections without stepping on individual property rights.

Trustees Russ Nummer and Michael O'Connell insisted that any historic preservation effort be strictly voluntary, allowing homeowners to opt in or out of the district. O'Connell said he saw value in protecting the village's architectural heritage but argued that protecting the property rights of homeowners was equally important.

"I don't think the government has a place in telling the owner of [a] home what to do with it, unless that owner agrees," he said.

O'Connell and Nummer both expressed concern with "an arbitrarily assembled committee." They also pressed for clear, non-subjective standards both for service on any historic preservation commission, as well as standards for determining architectural and historic significance.

Gilbert said the historic preservation issue continues to crop up routinely in the course of the board's business, with citizens regularly supporting preserving the village's character. "You need to reconcile this constant discussion we have between the legitimate rights of property owners and the constant consensus regarding the architectural character of the village," he said.

As part of that effort, Gilbert urged the board to remove what he termed "a major obstacle" to the orderly development of a historic preservation ordinance-the current historic district boundaries that were created in 1977.

"Start from scratch," he said. "Redraw the historic district based on recommendations made to you by the Historic Preservation Commission."

Gilbert also stressed that if the board decided that the preservation of certain buildings in the village was a desirable goal, then the only legally effective mechanism available to it was a preservation ordinance.

"You have a fundamental decision, if you adhere to the concept that the historical character of the village should be preserved," he said. "If so, this [an ordinance] is probably the only vehicle you have to implement that rule."

Gilbert also addressed O'Connell's concerns regarding the appointment of any potential commission members, noting that the village's Zoning Board of Appeals and Development Review Boards are appointed by the board.

"You can set it up so it operates the same way." Such a move would likely address concerns regarding the ability of people to appeal any decision by the Historic Preservation Commission by making the village board the final arbiter.

After phone and e-mail input from individual trustees, Gilbert's revised draft ordinance will be forwarded to the ad-hoc historic preservation committee for consideration, after which another public hearing will be scheduled.

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