Highland Park examines code enforcement practices
The Highland Park City Council voted Jan. 14 to allow Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan to keep the oversized neon sign in the window of his Madame ZuZu’s teahouse. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 11, 2013 4:54PM
HIGHLAND PARK — City officials expressed outrage last August when a Belle Avenue homeowner and her remodeler cut off the tops of roughly 100 trees blocking a view of Lake Michigan.
The property is located in a protected “Steep Slope” zone with tight restrictions to prevent erosion, and the tree-cutting in some cases was deemed a threat to the viability of the trees. Since tree-topping cannot easily be restored, the city’s response has been to pursue fines through its administrative hearing process.
In January, the City Council was accused of going too easy with Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan after a neon sign was put up without a permit in the window of his Madame ZuZu’s teahouse on Roger Williams Avenue.
The council ultimately granted a zoning variation to allow the sign to stay, which some community members interpreted as preferential treatment for a famous resident. Mayor Nancy Rotering vigorously refuted the criticism, saying the petition was handled in the same manner as it would have been for another business owner or resident.
The council, however, has agreed to a look at code enforcement practices in 2013 to better ensure the system’s fairness and consistency while also clarifying when the city should get tough or go easy.
City administrators note the goal of enforcement has been remediation and compliance, rather than maximizing revenue with steep fines.
City staff believe the city’s approach has served the pubic well, since out of hundreds of complaints received each year — 1,092 in 2012 — only a handful rises to the level of public discussion.
“The upside to a compliance-based approach is that residents, business people and property owners are provided an opportunity to achieve compliance without being shamed, or feeling financial hardship,” said City Manager David Knapp. “On the downside, it can contribute to a tendency to seek ‘forgiveness rather than permission’ from those that are inclined to try to beat the system.”
One suggestion is to double the permit fees for work permits secured after the work is completed.
During a recent council discussion, council member Paul Frank expressed concern that in the case of tree-topping, a homeowner might weigh the fine against the benefit of a lake view and choose to disregard the law.
“I wouldn’t want the homeowner to put a dollar amount to it and say it’s worth it,” he said. “My sense is people are seething about the tree-topping and don’t feel it was handled” correctly.
City administrators provided council members with some concrete examples of the nuances of code enforcement for future discussion. They include:
• A homeowner on the 2200 block of Sheridan Road installed a patio and fence to create an ice rink that generated complaints from neighbors. The city had issued permits for the patio and fence, but the fence netting that was installed exceeded the permissible height. The homeowners removed the netting and withdrew their application for a variation. But neighbors have appealed to the city to find the ice rink constitutes a zoning violation. The city code makes no mention of ice rinks.
• In response to complaints, the city asked the owner of a dilapidated residence on the 1600 block of McGovern to repair or demolish the structure. After some time, the owner expressed a willingness to tear down the home but raised concern about the demolition tax the city uses to support affordable housing. The Housing Commission has heard the issue, which is expected to go to the City Council.