New zoning code could be stronger

Opinion

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Darcy Lewis

It's been quite a ride, going through the residential zoning process with the Riverside Plan Commission these two-plus years. After publicly zeroing in on residential zoning and the teardown issue, not to mention broaching the subject with innumerable friends, acquaintances and even total strangers, my official wrap-up on the November 2005 ordinance seems overdue.

The new ordinance has several strengths. First, I like the way the ordinance was written to current municipal standards. It is now far more uniform and easily understood than ever before, which is a boon to residents and staff alike. Also, consultants at Camiros provided the village with fair value for money in terms of actually drafting the ordinance and coaching the Plan Commission and Village Board.

And the process had much to recommend it, as much as I sometimes chafed at its pace. It was collaborative in the best sense of the term. The Plan Commissioners and village trustees are uniformly meticulous and diligent. You have to be in order to discuss the minutiae of fences and parking?"two major hot-button issues?"for up to two hours at a stretch.

The extensive resident questionnaire and two community workshops were well thought out and evoked a strong response. Riversiders really care about the teardown issue and voiced a variety of thoughtful concerns, many of which were heeded by the Plan Commission.

All the loving aside, the new ordinance is not perfect. For example, I would have preferred to see front-loading attached garages banned altogether?"as did many community members, based on the questionnaire and public comment at the workshops.

At least the new ordinance's provision limiting attached garages to five feet beyond the home's facade should help preserve the community from the dreaded "snout house" effect that has plagued many towns where teardowns have become common.

In my opinion, the village board missed an opportunity to protect the community's architectural integrity by axing the proposed design review commission altogether. That had been one of the most contested aspects of the ordinance within the Plan Commission, and their internal differences forced them to work out a means of implementing design review that would have been fair to all while not unduly cumbersome to administer. It's unfortunate that the board did not see what a boon this could have been to the community as a whole.

The board's decision, however, makes it even more important that the Historic Preservation Commission draft and support the demolition delay ordinance that they've been kicking around since last fall.

I had pretty much accepted the fact that the new ordinance would fall short in my book since Camiros went through the exercise of applying a draft version to five new homes in late 2004 that had been built under the old ordinance.

The areas that were out of compliance tended to be relatively minor aspects like driveway width. The major features of most of these homes that make many of them so unpleasant to live near?"height, setbacks, total lot coverage?"would all been hunky-dory under the new ordinance, with the exception of the over-the-top, shoehorned-in "castle" house on Nuttall across from the Longcommon. That home's dimensions, thankfully, would be curtailed if it were built today.

Fairness compels me to point out that many of the newer teardown houses being built around town appear more contextual and not as hideously over-scaled as their counterparts of a couple years ago.

Recent glaring exceptions include houses on Shenstone near Blythe and Selborne east of Nuttall?"a pair of unimaginative, bulky snout houses that stand out in their neighborhoods like the proverbial sore thumbs they are.

But the fact that the new houses seem to be improving overall is small consolation to those neighbors who must still live in the shadow of builders' less successful efforts.

The bottom line is that, despite all its positives and the best of intentions, the new residential zoning ordinance fails to live up to its potential in protecting the historic character of Riverside and the rights of those who live near teardown projects. Even after all this work, Riverside's zoning remains more pro-builder than pro-neighbor, and that's a shame.

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