Wendell Jisa inside his office in the coach house behind his Riverside home. Jisa has advocated for making it easier for Riverside homeowners to create detached home office space. (Photo provided)

Riverside officials say they accept that working from home may, in fact, be the new reality for many residents – even after we’re past the present pandemic. They also don’t have a problem with encouraging those who aren’t making a daily commute converting an accessory structure or altering one to create office space away from a property’s primary dwelling.

But, they’re not going to allow it by simply allowing people to add a story onto their detached garages.

“I agree that the way we work has been changed forever, and these small offices in people’s backyards are going to become more and more needed,” said Village President Ben Sells during a discussion of the subject at the Riverside Village Board’s virtual meeting on Jan. 21. 

“What I’m hearing is that there’s no appetite for taller, two-story garages, but that people are sensitive to the need of having some way for folks to have office space,” he added.

The issue was brought to the table last September by Trustee Wendell Jisa, who has a home office above his garage as well as separate office space in a Riverside condo space. Jisa said that he was lucky to have such options, but that many more people forced to work from home don’t.

Building a home office above a garage would allow those residents a place to work without being in the bustle of a home where children may also be attending school remotely. Such an addition might also increase the value of a property, he argued.

However, the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission, which considered Jisa’s idea at meetings last September and November, was skeptical of allowing homeowners carte blanche to begin building second stories on their garages. 

In addition to being concerned about the aesthetic impact of oversize garages, commissioners also pointed to existing allowances for building garage additions as well as the zoning variation process as alternative remedies.

Jisa disagreed with that assessment, saying he was trying to avoid increasing impervious surface coverage on residential lots. He also said he didn’t get the argument that building upwards would impair aesthetics.

“Frankly, the aesthetics of someone’s house or garage, in my opinion, should be their own prerogative,” Jisa said. “I have a lot of friends who don’t have the financial means to go out and rent an office for three grand a month or have the opportunity to stop working in a dual-income family.”

Sells and Village Attorney Michael Marrs also believed a homeowner would have a hard time obtaining a zoning variance to add another story to a garage, saying it would be virtually impossible to claim a hardship. 

“Trying to get a variation for the personal reason of wanting an office would be an uphill battle,” Marrs said.

But Jisa’s fellow trustees put his mind at ease, proposing that the matter be sent back to the Planning and Zoning Commission to consider amending the zoning code to make it easier to for homeowners to create a detached home office without adding height.

One key change may be eliminating a provision in the code that limits accessory structures to 800 square feet or 12 percent of the property, whichever is less. Sells suggested that as long as accessory structures don’t exceed lot coverage limits in the code, they should be allowed for use as home offices.

Trustee Doug Pollock also suggested having the Planning and Zoning Commission explore allowing bathrooms to be built inside accessory structures, which would be a convenient amenity for a home office.

“I believe that expanding the footprint of accessory structures and allowing a bathroom will allow professionals to achieve what I envisioned and needed,” said Jisa in an email to the Landmark last week. “I also believe that allowing the separate work space with a bathroom in Riverside will mitigate the risk of fewer commuters finding value in the close proximity to Chicago, offer dual income families more convenience, increase home values and differentiate ourselves from other counties and suburbs with lower taxes.”