Alternative headline: The zoning map and the zoning code work hard to limit new housing and density.
Several times a week I browse the descriptions of recently issued building permits in Chicago to find the “interesting” projects so I can post those on the Chicago Cityscape social media accounts and keep people apprised of neat things happening.
I also track when new ADU permits are issued, because the city does not.
Yesterday a permit with the description of “basement to be converted to an additional legal dwelling unit” was issued in Roscoe Village, so I went to the city’s list of ADU pre-approval applications to determine if the permit was for an ADU or the applicant was taking advantage of the property’s #UnusedZoningCapacity.
It was not an ADU, and since it was zoned RS-3 – which bans multi-unit housing – it was also not the owner taking advantage of #UnusedZoningCapacity.
What was permitted?
I went to the city’s online zoning map to look for other clues, and I found that the property was involved in two Zoning Board of Appeals actions. This is where the story gets interesting. I will do my best to summary the proceedings but I must disclaim that I am not a lawyer.
The Zoning Board of Appeals is an appointed, quasi-judicial body that has three primary functions:
- Grant variations where the zoning code authorizes them to (deviations from the code because of atypical circumstances or circumstances that have been previously deemed to require additional review).
- Grant special uses where the zoning code authorizes them to (business types that have been previously deemed to require additional or special review).
- Appeal decisions made the Zoning Administrator, the person who works for the City of Chicago in the Chicago Department of Planning & Development (and by extension, the plan review staff).
There is a provision in the Chicago zoning code that says that houses that, upon special request, the Zoning Administrator (ZA) can grant an Administrative Adjustment (AA) to allow an additional dwelling unit at houses that are 50 years old or older (subject to other provisions in 17-13-1003-BB).
The owner – also known as the applicant in this blog post – of the two-flat decided to request this AA. The ZA said that the applicant was not eligible for the AA. “The Appellant [applicant] then attempted to seek a variation before the Zoning Board of Appeals” because the ZBA can “grant a variation for any matter expressly authorized as an administrative adjustment”.
Before an applicant can approach ZBA, though, they must apply for a building permit and receive an official “denial of zoning certification” (more on this at the end). This “denial” means, in the unofficial layperson’s zoning translation dictionary, “the permit reviewers see what you’re trying to do and while it’s not permitted as of right under the circumstances you can take this certificate and apply for relief from the ZBA”.
The ZA, who oversees the permit reviewers’ review of a building permit application’s adherence to zoning standards, “refused to issue” the denial. They did this pursuant to 17-16-0503-A, which says the ZA “may deny or withhold all permits, certificates or other forms of authorization on any land or structure or improvements thereon upon which there is uncorrected violation of a provision of this Zoning Ordinance…” The building had an uncorrected building violation citation from 2007.
The property owner disagreed with the application of that section of the zoning code. They filed an appeal and asked the ZBA to reverse the ZA’s decision to refuse issuing the denial. (In the same filing the applicant also asked the ZBA to legalize the basement garden unit, which they declined to do.
I’m going to skip a bunch of the proceedings, which are in the attached meeting minutes from two meetings, but conclude that the ZBA “finds that the ZBA did err in refusing to issue the Appellant an official denial of zoning certification” and ordered the ZA to issue the denial.
The story ended well
Having won the appeal, the applicant has the official denial of zoning certification and can proceed to file a new case with the ZBA and request a variation asking, again, for them to grant them the administrative adjustment that the ZA had previously said the applicant was not eligible for.
The applicant’s building permit for the additional unit was issued on June 7, 2023. The processing time on the building permit was 961 days, which should represent the date when the applicant first submitted the building permit application with the intention of getting the official denial of zoning certification from the ZA.
The result was that the city lost an additional home in a high-amenity, high-resource neighborhood for three years and a property owner had to pay thousands in legal fees.