Typically, putting up a fence around your backyard is a pretty routine matter. Unless you live in Riverside.
Deborah Zuckswerth learned that late last year, when she proposed erecting a fence outside her home at Byrd and Longcommon roads, so her dogs could be outside unattended. It’s not a particularly big job; the fence will cost about $2,000.
But because of the way Zuckswerth’s home was built on the lot back many decades ago, it’s a legal non-conforming lot — one of many in Riverside — and she needs to get a zoning variation to build the fence.
Initiating a hearing before the Riverside Zoning Board of Appeals will cost her $1,000 — half of what the fence itself costs.
“My position is I have a non-conforming lot, and I’m being asked to conform to conforming lot regulations,” Zuckswerth said. “The cost-benefit analysis of doing a very minor improvement is punitive compared to people who don’t have that threshold to pass.”
Until Thursday, Zuckswerth had no luck convincing village officials to lower that fee and let her have her day in front of the zoning board at a reasonable cost.
But village board members agreed 4-2 to lower Zuckswerth’s fee to $250 and let her go before the zoning board as a trial run to test out a modified process for smaller-scale projects such as Zuckswerth’s.
President Ben Sells cast the deciding vote to lower the fee. He was joined by Trustee Joseph Ballerine, who has been arguing Zuckswerth’s case to his fellow board members for more than a month, and trustees Patricia Collins and Michael Foley.
Trustees Jean Sussman and Doug Pollock voted against lowering the fee, but for different reasons. Sussman does not believe the zoning process should be altered for smaller scale projects, such as fences, because such projects can have a significant impact, sometimes more significant than an addition.
In this particular case, because Zuckswerth’s property has no official backyard, the area to be fenced would be closer to the street than allowed.
“I don’t believe it should be easy to apply for a variation,” said Sussman. “It’s about preserving the community and treating everybody equally.”
Pollock, on the other hand, did not want to start singling out specific cases for fee waivers. Instead, he said he favored lowering any zoning board hearing fee to $250 in order to make the process accessible to all residents.
The point of charging $1,000 is to recoup part of the village’s cost for holding a zoning board hearing — the public notice, notification of neighbors, and paying a court reporter for a verbatim transcript of the hearing and staff time.
Pollock argued that the village subsidizes many things, including zoning cases which can cost far more than $1,000 to decide.
“If it costs the village money, it’s [the residents’] money,” Pollock said.
In the meantime, the village board will consider Ballerine’s proposal to move small projects, such as fences, which require zoning variations outside of the zoning board process.
Ballerine suggested having those smaller projects go through a “zoning administrator” — perhaps the village manager and building director — who would create a report and findings of fact that would be delivered to the village board for final consideration.
Such a process would allow people considering smaller projects, but who are scared away by the cost of a full-blown zoning hearing, to present their cases to the village. Ballerine said it also might cut down on the number of residents who, faced with the process, simply do the work anyway, without permission, and risk the consequences.
“We have that problem in our town now,” said Ballerine, whose vision of a zoning administrator process could face an uphill battle. Sells, Sussman and Pollock said Thursday they would be more comfortable with having applicants go through the Zoning Board of Appeals, although Sells favors making variations for some lower-cost projects — perhaps only fences — cheaper for the village by avoiding verbatim transcripts, for example.
He’s hoping Zuckswerth’s case will give the village board an idea of where to head in the future.
“Let’s let this experiment play out and then take this on as a board,” Sells said.