The Riverside village board on Dec. 19 voted unanimously to create a combined planning and zoning commission and to streamline the review process for development in Riverside commercial and multifamily residential districts.

The new commission will perform the duties formerly split between the Plan Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals, from updating the zoning code to approving zoning variances and development plans.

“The idea was to make the commission a one-stop shop for downtown development,” said Village President Ben Sells.

A key part of the new ordinance creating the combined planning and zoning commission is eliminating a requirement that any development in those four zones of the village also formally include the Landscape Advisory Commission and Preservation Commission as part of the process.

Streamlining the development approval process in the downtown business district was recommended by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in its comprehensive Riverside downtown plan completed earlier this year.

Those two commissions won’t be cut of the process entirely, said Sells. Their input will be sought, but applicants won’t need to appear formally before those commissions.

“Under the old version, you had multiple required meetings and you had projects bouncing back and forth between commissions,” said Sells.

While the village hasn’t had much in the way of commercial development review in recent years, the plan review process did have an effect of delaying a couple of major developments in the mid-2000s, the Village Center and the townhome development at Burlington and Herbert.

Eric Sundstrom, the developer of the townhome project, endured two years of plan review for a 10-townhome development. By the time the development was finally approved, the real estate market had crashed and Sundstrom lost the property to the bank.

“It was a ridiculous process to the point of absurdity,” said Sundstrom, who also lost the building that housed his insurance agency, which has since relocated in Riverside. “I’m glad they did something about it.”

On the other hand, the lengthy process also delayed a major renovation of the Arcade Building, whose owners were later convicted of operating an international Ponzi scheme. The building was later sold to a Chicago area roofing contractor who spent more than a year restoring the building to its 19th-century glory.

But, said Sells, streamlining the review process was a necessary signal that the village is open to development and not suspicious of it or the ability of the village’s staff to navigate the process.

“I sometimes think that we don’t put enough faith in the professional staff we have,” said Sells. “We’re trying to create a process that shows entrepreneurs that you’re open to their efforts. The very idea of making these changes shows we’re open to the feeling that bringing people to town is worth it. A lot of it has to do with the message we’re sending to the broader world.”

Another change to the ordinance makes it easier for the village to plant trees, shrubs and other planting on public parkways by eliminating the requirement that the director of public works submit a permit application for the plantings to the Landscape Advisory Commission.

The director of public works will also no longer need to solicit additional permission for the installation of hardscape elements, such as benches and bike racks, in the village’s commercial districts. Previously, such matters needed to be reviewed by the Landscape Advisory Commission, Preservation Commission and Plan Commission.

Sells, who has led the charge for the changes to the development review process and for updating the way the village’s advisory commissions operate, said he will appoint seven people to the new commission at the village board’s next meeting on Jan. 16. 

Three of the new members will be drawn from the former Riverside Plan Commission and two will come from the former Zoning Board of Appeals. In addition, two new members will be named to the commission. 

Brookfield board merges planning, zoning groups

On Dec. 16 at a special meeting of the Brookfield Village Board, trustees also voted unanimously to combine that village’s Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.

The new planning and zoning commission’s members will be drawn from the former Plan Commission. Charles Grund, a longtime plan commissioner, will be chairman for the new group, which will review development plans, zoning variance requests and changes to the village zoning code. 

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