Evanston aldermen said Monday they like the idea of taking a divide and conquer approach to revising the city’s zoning code.

City staff presented the aldermen with the option of hiring consultants to do a comprehensive review of the zoning ordinance, or splitting the job into three parts that could be handled largely in house.

A memo from Community Development Director James Wolinski recommended against the comprehensive approach — the strategy used for the last major zoning code rewrite in the early 1990s.

He argued that approach was “not productive” because the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee ended up rewriting the work of staff and a citizens’ committee “page by page.” He suggested that a repeat of the process could end up being a “never ending review.”

Instead, Assistant City Manager Judy Aiello suggested, the work could be divided into three parts.

The Zoning Board of Appeals would initially tackle several relatively simple issues where the staff has concluded the existing code is broken.

At the same time the Plan Commission and its Zoning Committee would continue developing zoning recommendations for areas that have been the target of recent city planning studies, including Central Street, West Evanston and the downtown area.

Finally the ZBA would take another pass through the zoning code, cleaning it up so it is less prone to misinterpretation and trying to create more consistency in zoning districts across the city.

Alderman Anjana Hansen, 9th Ward, said, “Consultants we’ve hired don’t know anything about Evanston. I like the idea of doing it in house.”

Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, said he liked the idea of diverting much of the rezoning work to the Zoning Board of Appeals. “The Zoning Committee of the Plan Commission already has a lot of work to do,” Moran said, “and I don’t think we should delay on these larger zoning code issues.”

But one of the ideas staff suggested as a simple revision that could be tackled in the first phase drew concern from several aldermen.

The zoning code now requires a special use permit and review by the Zoning Board of Appeals for any air conditioner condenser unit located less than 10 feet from a property line.

The staff, noting that the requests occur quite freqently and the vast majority ultimately are approved, suggested changing the rule so that air conditioners at least five feet from a property line could be approved without a hearing.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “There’s nothing more controversial than an air conditioning unit.”

Moran said he’s “amazed at all the time consumed” by the air conditioner variation requests, but he suggested “people should be required to follow the ordinance” and not be granted variations.

Aiello responded that technology has improved since the 1990s, so that quieter air conditioning units are available and the regulations should be revised in light of that change.

Other issues proposed for phase one consideration include adding a sunset provision to special use permits, adding a third restaurant classification to deal with so-called “quick casual” dining establishments and making it easier to win approval for residential additions with non-conforming setbacks when they maintain the existing building footprint.

The city staff plans to return to the aldermen with a more detailed work plan for the project at an upcoming meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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