A disturbing rumor in need of a public debunking has wormed its way into Riverside. Here's the background: A friend of mine who has openly expressed concern and frustration over the growing momentum of teardowns in Riverside has received not one but two phone calls from an older resident asking for the phone number of a real estate developer.
It's not clear why the resident, who does not know my friend except from her public stance on this issue, thought she would have the information, but the reason for the call quickly became clear:
"I want to sell my house, but it needs work," the caller said. "I've been told that the village will force me to bring my entire house up to code to allow me to sell it, and I can't afford to do that. All my friends are saying it's better and easier just to sell your house to a developer."
After picking my jaw up off the floor, I sought clarification from Village Manager Kathleen Rush, whose reaction was reassuringly unequivocal: "What a horrible rumor," she said. "And rumor it is. Please share the facts."
So, as a public service, here they are:
According to Building Commissioner Bob Caraher, when a property is sold, a village inspector must visit the home prior to issuing the necessary Certificate of Compliance to the seller. This inspection, which carries a $150 charge, includes a final water-meter reading.
"We do not go in there to do a building code compliance inspection," he says. "Our main purpose is to check for zoning compliance."
In other words, if the property is zoned as a single-family home, this would be the village's chance to discover an illegal apartment in the basement or attic.
"Yes, we walk through the entire house, but we're just checking for signs of an illegal multifamily dwelling," Caraher says. "And the police department will use our information to collect any outstanding parking tickets or the like before the resident leaves town, but that's it."
If the inspector does find evidence of a zoning violation, the village will stop the transaction until the home is returned to its single-family status, Caraher says.
The inspector notes any substantial code violations he comes across during the inspection, but the homeowner is not required to fix them to complete the sale. Caraher says he most commonly sees violations in the side yard setbacks, which are now required to be at least five feet from the property line on each side. Other common violations are fences that encroach on the property line and driveways that are too wide.
"We want to create a paper trail," says Caraher. "That's serving notice on the new owner that any changes they make to that property will have to conform to whatever the code is at the time of the proposed change."
The one exception to this hands-off inspection policy is pressing safety concerns.
"Our inspector will get nosy if he smells gas or sees bare wires," says Caraher. "That's a matter of absolute life safety and we will step in, but it's very rare to find that kind of problem."
One area of confusion involves the section of the current zoning code that covers legal nonconforming uses. These are typically single-family homes that were divided into two-flats to accommodate the post-World War II housing shortage.
In 1956, the code specified the usual life span of buildings made of different materials, the rationale being that, at the end of that useful life span, the building would either be converted back to a single-family home or else the property would be redeveloped.
The useful life span of a frame building was specified as being 50 years, which puts 2006 as the date of conversion back to single-family status for frame structures. However, as Caraher is quick to point out, any and all provisions of the current zoning code?"especially that one?"may be overturned in the forthcoming residential zoning ordinance, which the village board hopes to adopt in September.
The bottom line is that anyone concerned about this particular issue?"or any aspect of the current residential zoning ordinance?"should call Caraher at 447-1241. And any resident who is feeling pressured to sell by a developer should absolutely call the village to complain.