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Zoning panel returns ‘family’ issue to Plan Commission

Homeowners near campus oppose change, but panel concludes existing restrictions fail to prevent nuisance issues. Affordable housing advocates want those restrictions removed to increase available housing stock.

Rob Biesenbach holds up a picture on his tablet computer of the aftermath of a party in his neighborhood during Wednesday night's Zoning Committee meeting.

Members of Evanston’s Zoning Committee voted Wednesday night to send the issue of whether the city should end attempts to restrict the types of people who can live together back to the Plan Commission.

But they didn’t agree on what to do about the question.

Several residents who live near campus said they feared lifting the current ban on having more than three unrelated people occupy a dwelling unit would open the floodgates to investors who would buy up single family homes and fill them with noisy, partying students.

Rob Biesenbach of 2011 Orrington Ave. showed the committee a photo of the aftermath of an outdoor party that he said typifies the problem.

But the commissioners concluded that the testimony from residents also showed that the current rule isn’t solving the problem they’re complaining about — that an increasing number of buildings are filled with students and at least some of those students engage in activities that prompt nuisance complaints from their neighbors.

Meanwhile affordable housing advocates pushed for elimination of the rule — saying it prevents efficient use of properties and pushes up housing costs. They argued that the city should rely on existing provisions in its housing code that set minimum space requirements per occupant of a dwelling unit but don’t attempt to restrict the relationships among the parties sharing living quarters.

Matt Rodgers.

Committee member Matt Rodgers said a key question will be whether the City Council is willing to put money into enforcing restrictions on disruptive activity. “Any rule is meaningless without enforcement,” Rodgers said. “If we come up with the best solution in the world, if the city doesn’t have enough people to conduct inspections, then we’ve not accomplished anything.”

But Sarah Flax, of the city’s Community Development Department, suggested it would be a lot easier to measure the size of a unit and calculate the maximum occupancy — and perhaps post it in each unit — rather than requiring an inspector to attempt to prove who’s related to whom.”

But committee member Jeanne Lindwall suggested that while the city has started to require floor plans when properties are registered as rentals, those plans don’t yet exist for the vast majority of the 14,000 rental units in town. Creating a complete record would be challenging, she suggested.

Rodgers and other committee members said they did not favor creating a zoning overlay district that would create rules for the close-to-campus area that would be different from ones that would apply to the rest of the city.

“I’m very opposed to overlay districts. I think they are horrible and we use them way too much.” Rodgers said. Creating multiple layers of rules makes it much more difficult to understand what’s allowed on a given property.

The committee asked city staff to provide more information on the issue to present to the full Plan Commission. The date for that discussion has not yet been scheduled.

The Plan Commission had referred the issue to the Zoning Committee last November. In three meeting on the issue the committee has failed to reach agreement on what, if any, action to take. The Plan Commission makes recommendations to the City Council, which would ultimately have to approve any zoning change for it to take effect.

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Panel again fails to act on three-unrelated rule (4/15/21)

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