Views split on wisdom of teardown ban

Plan commission to consider moratorium as part of village's plan to save historic homes

After a bit of delay due to COVID-19 hurdles, consideration of moratorium on demolitions of historic homes in Hinsdale is moving ahead.

The village's plan commission is slated to schedule a public hearing on the matter at its meeting Thursday, May 13, with the hearing expected to be held at the group's June 10 meeting.

The proposed six-month ban on demolition permits applies to homes within the Robbins Park Historic District and Central Business District properties as well as any landmarked or historically significant homes. Village officials would use that hiatus to develop regulations aimed at promoting historic preservation.

The recent request by three homeowners for certificates of appropriateness to demolish three historic homes in the Robbins Park district provoked an outcry from preservation advocates. It also precipitated the village board's March 16 request that the plan commission consider a moratorium.

"When all these homes are gone, they're gone," Village President Tom Cauley said at the time. "I don't want (people) to look back at this administration as somehow being asleep at the switch when this happened."

But resident Rob Miller, who several years ago restored the 112-year-old historic home at 231 E. Third St., believes a moratorium is a misguided approach.

"In my view it would only further threaten property values and ultimately be seen by the courts as an illegal taking by a municipal government," Miller said in his public comments during the April 19 village board meeting.

In a follow-up interview with The Hinsdalean, he said the village ultimately will pay a financial price as historic homes languish and new, higher property-tax-generating replacements can't be built.

"You will lose money. The cost of restoring (a historic home) is far greater in terms of what the market will bear for these houses," said the self-described preservationist. "Infill is not a terrible thing."

Provide incentives instead, Miller suggested, like accelerating the village's process to get remodeling plans approved and waiving associated fees.

"There are a ton of programs and incentives that are available," he said.

Robb McGinnis, the village's building commissioner/director of community development, anticipates officials also could consider relief from zoning regulations to make preservation more palatable.

"We could waive (floor-area-ratio) and bulk zoning requirements to allow for some additional interior bulk without markedly changing the way the house looks from the street," McGinnis said.

He referenced a survey commissioned in 1999 that identified more than 1,000 homes across the village that are either historically significant or contribute to the neighborhood's character. How many remain is the question his department is working to answer now.

"We should be able to get an accurate count of how many of those homes have been torn down," McGinnis commented.

But a house's vintage cannot be the sole criteria for its value, he added.

"There has to be more than just age as the primary driver of whether a home is worth saving or not," McGinnis said.

He and Cauley both said the village is working with a consultant who has worked with North Shore suburban communities on their historic preservation ordinances. The village's Historic Preservation Commission, for example, conducts certificate of appropriateness reviews on applications concerning historic properties but the group's determination is not binding. In Lake Forest, however, the certificate is required for work to proceed (see sidebar).

With the plan commission unable to take up the moratorium at its April 16 teleconference meeting, Cauley voiced worry that the delay could lead to more homes being lost. Consequently, should the moratorium ultimately be approved, he will seek that it be retroactive to March 16.

"My concern is that, while we are waiting to decide whether or not to put a moratorium in place, that we get an increase in the number of permits to demolish homes," Cauley said, noting that permit applicants are being alerted to that possibility. "We'll get the recommendation from the plan commission and I will ask the board to make it retroactive, and we'll see where it goes."

Miller hopes it goes toward a constructive solution.

"The debate has sort of been shaped as between developers and preservationists," he said. "There needs to be a middle ground here and we have to realize that all share the same goals of valuing historic homes in a way that makes economic sense."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean