Guest Column: Grandfather clause for zoning chance

By Conor Brown
Government Affairs Director, Rockford Area REALTORS

The City of Rockford began the formal process of updating its zoning map, the first major overhaul since 1993. It affects zoning for more than 3,000 of the 62,000 residential and commercial properties in the city. All property owners affected received letters dated Sept. 29, 2010, from the city notifying them a property or properties they owned were part of the zoning map amendment. The first hearing was Oct. 19 at the Zoning Board of Appeals.

When the first major zoning ordinance was written in 1979, it included minimum lot sizes. This was used to create more uniform spacing and less density in neighborhoods. The benefits were larger lots and fewer street parking issues. The negatives were more expensive lots and more costs to extend city services. Unfortunately, for many property owners, their existing structures built prior to 1979 on these smaller lots no longer met the minimum lot size required, thus making them non-conforming.

As everyone is aware, underwriting standards have changed drastically over the past few years, and the ease of obtaining credit has tightened considerably. We worked hard with the City of Rockford to address financing and insuring issues with legal, non-conforming properties. In 2008, when the zoning text was updated, it included language allowing for the rebuild of structures destroyed beyond 50 percent back to their original building permit. The city issues letters stating such so borrowers can use them to obtain credit. However, there still exists a significant perception issue that has become reality for property owners wishing to market their non-conforming properties: “Zoning is gold, and anything less is not worth the trouble.”

Unfortunately, some are attempting to utilize this zoning map amendment process to correct sins of the past. They want less-dense neighborhoods and fewer rentals, and to restrict publicly-assisted housing. Addressing these issues through zoning is not an appropriate method and may cause unintended consequences. Legal buildings will not be converted back because of a zoning change. Greater home ownership is not achieved through down-zoning; it happens through economic stability and growth. Finally, zoning and public housing are two unrelated issues that have paired to spark fear.

So, what is the solution? It is rather simple: move more properties into conformity. Achieving this will increase marketability, strengthen neighborhoods and increase investment. One simple sentence to the zoning text can make that happen. That is why we propose the following amendment to the zoning text:

“Residential structures legally established prior to (insert date of map update approval) are to be permitted uses in all residential zoning districts regardless of lot size.”

If it was legal and conforming when it was built or legally converted, then it should be legal and conforming now. This is basically a grandfathering clause. It will not affect future development.

We are sympathetic to neighborhoods with illegal conversions. We do not want to see more of them and would like to seek ways the city can go after them in an aggressive manner. Additionally, we do not want to create situations where greater density detrimentally affects neighborhoods. We are open to language that restricts the ability of existing structures from adding more residential units.

The Zoning Board of Appeals passed the zoning amendment 7-0. It is now on its way to the Codes & Regulations Committee. They will convene at 4:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 29, at City Hall, Conference Room A, on the second floor. Your voice is important to this process. Make sure it is heard.

From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue

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