As zoning topics often can be, the matter of the zoning variation process for fences raised in the May 29 article “Jumping through hoops to get a fence” and in the related Landmark editorial is more complex than at first it might seem. It can be more completely understood if some of the interconnected pieces are separately examined.
There is the issue of the administrative process itself. While it may be considered burdensome for relatively small projects such the subject of the current discussion, its primary purpose is to help ensure that the spirit and intent of the zoning ordinance is preserved for the benefit of the entire village.
Parts of that process, such as the requirement to notify property owners within a defined distance, are required by law. If there is a way to reduce process complexity within the law while preserving the efficacy of the zoning review function, I suspect it would receive universal support.
Which leads to the cost of executing the process and to deciding on which entities should fairly bear that burden. The $1,000 fee was set based on village staff analysis of actual costs — most of which are fixed, independent of the size of the requested variation — to run the process.
So a key question becomes: should the village underwrite the actual cost of any variation request, benefiting an individual property owner? The answer to that for some folks gets more complicated — or easier, depending — when viewed against the financial challenges facing the village. As Trustee Pollack acknowledged, “If it costs the village money, it’s [the residents’] money.”
The zoning ordinance itself is a primary consideration. When the village board of trustees in 2005 passed the extensive and critically needed revision to the residential zoning ordinance, it did so after the Plan Commission had very thoughtfully considered extensive public, expert, and legal input.
Perhaps no single section of the ordinance was more vigorously debated than the section governing fences, given the need to balance the significance of their visual impact with the rights of property owners. In particular, much consideration was given to the irregularly shaped lots in town, and provisions were carefully constructed to reach the best possible compromises between often competing elements.
That said, in cases where — with the benefit of experience applying our zoning ordinance — the Plan Commission later determined that improvements to the ordinance should be made, it did so with board approval. At its April 16 meeting when the current matter was discussed, plan commissioners remained comfortable with the current fence ordinance.
And when implementing ordinance changes, we must be mindful of the precedent any such change may set. While a change might make sense or be acceptable in one location, it might not be so much in others.
If a precedent gets set, then there is less or no basis upon which a similar request could be denied in scenarios where the change wouldn’t generally be seen as acceptable. This could lead to a proliferation of undesirable development incongruent with the intent and spirit of the ordinance. Or if we reduce the fee in one case, the village may be compelled to identify others because of a precedent set by some specific reduction.
Separate from these considerations are the specific conditions set forth in the zoning ordinance, which govern when a variation may be granted. Unless the conditions are met by a petitioner’s request, the Zoning Board of Appeals is obliged to deny the request.
So there are lots of moving parts. The process is not perfect, the ordinance is not ideal for every property owner, and the people involved are not infallible. But the parts do operate in a way that endeavors to strike a balance, as efficiently and as fairly as possible, that benefits the village as a whole. If there’s a way to prudently improve it, we absolutely should — after considering all the intended and unintended consequences.
Paul Kucera is a member of the Riverside Plan Commission.