The village of Riverside has made it a bit easier for property owners to obtain zoning variations after voting to amend the standards that officials must consider when analyzing those requests.
Village trustees on July 21 voted unanimously to remove the three standards by which all zoning variation requests were considered and replace them with seven others, which, while greater in number, allow more flexibility in interpretation.
“More specific criteria are being addressed now,” said Village President Ben Sells in an interview in late July. “It’s an easier process for everybody. We didn’t want [variation requests] to be a roll of the dice for petitioners because it’s expensive.”
In the past, anyone seeking a variation had to convince the village’s Planning and Zoning Commission they met three standards. Two of the standards — that the plight of the owner was due to unique circumstances and that granting a variation wouldn’t alter the essential character of the neighborhood — were relatively easy to determine.
The third — that the owner would “suffer an undue hardship in the absence of” a variation — was often very difficult to grant because “hardship” was defined in the statute as “a particular physical or other unusual condition of the specific property involved” and not “a mere inconvenience” arising from structures on the lot.
But village boards, which have final say on variations, would at times not hold themselves to the same standards in the statute, which stated simply that after receiving the findings of fact from the commission, the village board “may grant a variation.”
In recent years the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission has continued to interpret the standards in the statute very strictly, but the village board sometimes viewed things less strictly. In some cases, it has led to resentment on the part of planning and zoning commissioners, who felt their work was simply being dismissed.
“Under the old language, there was this tension between the strict definition of ‘hardship’ and what I’d call a more progressive view,” Sells said. “I think what [the new standards] does gives more clear guidance.”
Paul Kucera, the chairman of the commission, said there needed to be a way to ensure that both the commission and village board were judging variation requests by the same standards.
“Clearly something needed to be done,” Kucera said in an email to the Landmark. “We thoughtfully crafted the ordinance revisions we proposed to the village board of trustees, and they accepted them. Hopefully now it will be easier for them to stay on the same page as us.”
The commission’s role, he said, was not to stand in the way of homeowners improving their properties.
The commission “wants to facilitate that, not stand in the way of it,” Kucera said.
At the same time, the commission has to be aware of the results of granting a variance.
“The Planning and Zoning Commission is always mindful of how our actions establish precedent,” Kucera said. “We don’t want to set a precedent for something that later can be used as a basis by another petitioner who may then feel entitled to a substantially similar request.
“So the Planning and Zoning Commission wants to facilitate improvements and investments in a manner that is consistent with the intent of the ordinance.”
In April, the village board directed the commission to review the standards for variations, and in May the commission proposed changes that were the subject of a public hearing in June.
What commissioners decided to do was remove the “hardship” hurdle for variances from the local zoning ordinance. And instead of allowing the village board to disregard the commission’s findings of fact, the new law requires the village board to find that all seven of the new standards for granting a variation have been satisfied.
In place of the “undue hardship” requirement, now commissioners and village trustees can determine whether “a particular hardship or practical difficulty” would result if a variance were not granted.
That “difficulty” can’t be a mere inconvenience or based on a desire for financial gain, and it still can’t be a difficulty created by the property owner. But it allows for officials to consider such things as whether not granting a variance would prevent a homeowner from restoring or re-establishing a desirable feature to a home or maintaining architectural integrity.
“The petitioner doesn’t get to decide what the particular difficulty is,” Sells said. “It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy. But hopefully, it will give a clearer idea of what we’re paying attention to.”