In the run-up to the April 9th election (where I am running for alderman Geneva’s First Ward), candidates are subjected to many interviews and questionnaires. That’s all as it should be. An informed electorate is a wise electorate. For myself; I don’t really enjoy the process because I really don’t like self promotion (to the consternation of my campaign manager / good friend). I don’t mind being near the center of things, but I prefer that those “things” be the center of attention as opposed to yours truly.
One of the first candidate profile pieces came out recently in the pages of the Kane County Chronicle. In it, my opponent suggested that my eleven years on Geneva’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) as being something of liability. Too close to the issue, the thinking would go. Specifically he pointed to a well publicized case where a resident in the historic district ...a senior citizen no less... sued the city about replacing their windows. That successful legal challenge cost that resident (per my opponent) $70,000 and unspecified legal expenses on the part of the city. This is the popular, sound-bite understanding of that case. To the general public, it seemed like Draconian penalties were foisted on an elderly resident when all he wanted to do was eliminate drafts through his windows.
Like many things (and much of our ideologically divided politics), things seem clear and simple when one only possesses one or two bits of information. In this case, my opponent clearly knows little about the history of events and the legal rulings on this matter. In a nutshell; zoning in the historic district required that a building permit be pulled on windows replacements and those permits are reviewed either at staff level or by the assembled HPC to see that the quality and design of the window meets preservation standards spelled out in the Secretary of Interior standards. Those standards vary greatly based on the historical significance of the structure and the characteristics of the original windows.
I discarded my detailed records some time ago, but what transpired was something close to this:
1) The city sent out a direct mailing to all Historic District property owners summarizing the particular requirements that they are subject to. This included the requirement that window replacements required a building permit and an HPC review.
2) Just several weeks or several months later, an observant HPC commissioner saw the homes’ original windows stacked along the curb ready to go into a dumpster and notified city staff.
3) Staff, seeing that no permit had been pulled for a window replacement, issued a stop-work order (as the city is bound to do on any such permit violation)
4) As most/all replacement windows had already been installed, the property owner and/or his window contractor appeared before the HPC to make the case that the installed windows met the minimal standards for the particular vintage of that home. As they were the lowest tier for materials and design (solid vinyl and no exterior muntins), they did not meet the standards and the replacement were denied.
5) The property owner appealed the HPC decision before the City Council (an option available to all of those that are denied their request by the HPC...a mere 2% of those going before the HPC). The prevailing opinion of the City Council was that the HPC standards are reasonable, the property owner violated code and the denial was upheld.
6) The property owner, feeling they had a good case, sued and lost. The judges' ruling was very supportive of the city and recognized the Historic Preservation ordinances being challenged were reasonable.
7) The property owner, still feeling strongly about the case and wishing to make a point, challenged that legal ruling. This second judge also felt that the Historic Preservation ordinances were reasonable but thought it might be confusing that city code treated window replacements differently for properties inside vs. outside the district. That judge overturned the HPC decision only on that technicality. Never was any deliberative body convinced that the HPC ruling was out of line or unreasonable.
Irony number 1: Based on the vintage of the home and windows, the property owner almost certainly could have replaced his windows had he simply followed zoning rules, and had specified a slightly higher grade of window. This would have been a far lower price tag.
Irony number 2: To address that perceived problem with differing rules inside and outside the Historic District, the city was forced to change the rules and require building permits for windows replacement throughout the city. The real outcome of this lawsuit was not “putting HPC in its place”...HPC was vindicated time and time again... but to inflict restrictions on every property owner in the city where there needn’t be any.
So, if my opponent wishes to take to task the Historic Preservation Commission, I would suggest that he attend those public meetings and understand the details and activities instead of going on fragments of information. In my eleven years I do not recall seeing him there even once. As your hopeful First Ward Alderman, I promise to try to fully understand the issues upon which I deliberate and I would appreciate your vote on April 9th.