Incentive program finds willing market

Program to encourage preservation of vintage homes is already leaving village legacy

Series: Robbins Remade | Story 4

Historic homes in Hinsdale that in the past might have fallen victim to the wrecking ball are being saved thanks to village measures to promote preservation.

The historic overlay district established in 2022 and the voluntary incentives like zoning relief and matching grant funds that go with district eligibility have persuaded a number of homeowners to remodel rather than raze, officials attest.

"It seems like the zoning relief in and of itself was enough, in some cases, to get people to make the decision to keep (the home) rather than scrape it," said Robb McGinnis, the village's building commissioner and director of community development.

The measures have altered the landscape for sellers, too, he added.

"An unintended benefit of this program is people that would have otherwise just let their house go, assuming that it was going to get demolished, are choosing to reinvest in it," McGinnis said.

Letting prospective buyers know during the house hunting process about access to regulatory latitude to improve a vintage home can be a powerful marketing point.

"If somebody's spending the better part of $2 million on a project, they want to remove as many question marks up front as possible," McGinnis said.

Village planner Bethany Salmon said 85 properties to date have been approved for inclusion on the Historically Significant Structures List within the overlay district, which make them eligible for the incentives. Fourteen of those have been approved to receive incentives.

"It's been super-successful," she said, noting applicants have saved anywhere from a few hundred dollars to almost $20,000 in building permit fee waivers. "That in itself is a huge savings for some of these owners."

The most recent ones were greenlighted by the historic preservation commission at a special meeting Monday. Commissioners approved a building permit fee waiver, expedited processing, a property tax rebate and a matching grant for exterior improvements to the 1894-era home at 111 N. Lincoln St., and a property tax rebate and matching grant in connection with an addition to the 1929-built home at 24 E. Eighth St.

McGinnis said those inducements tilt the scales more toward modernizing an existing home, which is generally a more complicated undertaking than building new.

"Those floor plans from those houses that were built 100-plus years ago don't really lend themselves to some of the more open floor plans that you've got today," he said.

Several years ago officials contemplated imposing a temporary moratorium on teardowns after a spate of architectural specimens came down. The idea was not well received by the community.

"That kind of set the ball in motion on the carrot side" rather than wielding punitive sticks, McGinnis said.

Salmon acknowledged that people may confuse joining the overlay district list with landmarking, a more restrictive designation.

"We've created a completely separate program," she said.

Having several local real estate agents go through their own overlay district-related projects has produced some influential program evangelists.

"We are relying a lot on word-of-mouth by people so that they can testify that it's a great program, it's been really easy to go through and they've gotten great benefits out of it," Salmon said.

Speaking to a visitor at Monday's HPC meeting, commission Chairman John Bohnen indicated the incentive package furnished officials with an important set of tools in the heritage-protecting effort.

"We can literally recommend and allow waivers of certain elements of the zoning code to accommodate modifications to these older homes to make them be more livable and hopefully last much longer in the community," said Bohnen, a longtime preservation advocate.

Salmon said the village's incentive program was the subject of article in a national publication, turning Salmon and the village into a kind of vanguard on the issue.

"I've talked to people from Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania," she said, "and all of them do want to take an approach, it seems, of telling people what to do in a binding, regulatory manner. And we haven't really taken that approach."

Instead, she said, the village, which is non-home rule with limited ability to control development, is signaling that historic preservation is a high value in the community and that officials are ready and willing to support those who want to align with it.

"It's meant to show people that preservation is not just keeping your house as a museum. It can be modernized," she said. "As we have more of those projects come through, then people can actually see (how it can be done).

"We keep encouraging people to get on the list early," she continued, "way before you're even thinking about a project, because then you won't have to take that step later on."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean