To allow Claire’s, Naperville makes ear piercing legal in the downtown

Since Naperville’s zoning laws did not allow body piercings, it recently changed the provision about ear piercings for a new Claire’s downtown:

Naperville will now allow ear piercing to take place within its borders, but other body piercing remains prohibited.

The move came after a request from Claire’s Boutiques, Inc., which recently opened a shop in downtown Naperville. The company estimates it performs 3.7 million ear piercings annually at its stores around the world.

City councilmen voted 7-0 in favor of removing ear piercing from the definition of body piercing in city ordinances.

Zoning laws are often used to keep undesirable uses out of a community. For a relatively wealthy community like Naperville (median household income around $101,000), places that do body piercing do not project the kind of image the city desires. Many places will not allow spaces for tattoo parlors but apparently body piercing businesses also have some undesirable traits. I’m now curious how many suburbs don’t allow businesses to do body piercings, particularly ear piercings.

So why would Naperville reverse itself? Two things could be at play: a new business opened downtown that would benefit from changed rules and ear piercings don’t exactly conjure up the same negative images as other body piercings might. While it sounds like this change was because of Claire’s, a relatively non-threatening place more associated with shopping malls and young female consumers (adding to downtown Naperville’s mall-ification), I wonder if anyone else will take advantage of this change and promote a different kind of image than Claire’s.

Hiding an illicit castle behind a tarp and bales of hay

An English man built a castle without a permit and successfully hid it for several years:

In 2001, Fidler began constructing the home, which is now called Honeycrock Farmhouse and resembles a castle, but he did not get permission to build it from the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council. He secretly lived in the castle, which he hid under a large blue tarp and behind giant 40-foot-high bales of hay. In 2007, Fidler was ordered to tear down the four-bedroom home.

The guidelines from the council state that any structure built without planning permission but unchallenged for four or more years does not have to be demolished. Reigate and Banstead refused to grant retrospective planning permission, and after six years of fighting through the appeals system, Fidler and his wife, Laura, are being told that the four-bedroom castle must come down. The high court’s reasoning is based on the fact that Fidler kept the home concealed and he “set out deliberately to deceive.”

The legal issues could be interesting but I’m more intrigued by the fact he was able to hide this home for years with a tarp and hay bales. A story from 2008 has both a picture and helps answer the question of whether any neighbors noticed:

After building the castle on the site of two grain silos at a cost of £50,000, he and his wife Linda went to extraordinary lengths to keep it secret. That included keeping their son Harry, now seven, away from playschool the day he was supposed to do a painting of his home in class.

“We couldn’t have him drawing a big blue haystack – people might asked questions,” said 39-year-old Mrs Fidler.

Mr Fidler, who has five children from a previous marriage, said: “We moved into the house on Harry’s first birthday, so he grew up looking at straw out of the windows.

“We thought it would be a boring view but birds nested there and feasted on the worms. We had several families of robins and even a duck made a nest and hatched 13 ducklings on top of the bales.”

But neighbours were unimpressed.

One said: “Nobody thought anything of it when the hay went up. It was presumed he was building a barn or something similar.

“It was a complete shock when the hay came down and this castle was in its place. Everyone else has to abide by planning laws, so why shouldn’t they?”

This seems like a place where neighbors leave each other alone.

Chicken regulations in Naperville

More suburbs have had to deal with this issue in recent years: should suburbanites be allowed to keep chickens? Here is the latest from Naperville:

The majority of Naperville council members voted Tuesday to make no changes to an existing ordinance that governs the keeping of fowl in the city, which states the birds must be kept 25 feet from neighboring homes and cleaned regularly.

City staff presented a proposal Tuesday that would place further regulation on chicken coop keepers, requiring them to obtain a permit for the birds and construct larger perimeters around the livestock. But council members opted to maintain the status quo that has regulated chicken ownership for years…

While both residents — neighbors, in fact — who spoke during public forum were on opposite sides of the fence on the issue, they agreed the council’s decision came as a surprise…

But the council’s decision has no effect on those who live in subdivisions, some of which have their own bylaws that govern the keeping of livestock.

While the article suggests at the end that there are only a few formal complaints about this a year, I suspect this is an issue that will continue to pop up. This is a classic NIMBY issue: will nearby property values decrease if a neighbor keeps chickens? It is also interesting to note that Naperville’s guidelines don’t apply to subdivisions, presumably because they have Homeowner’s Associations that already tackle this issue. (Naperville has an unusual number of HOAs – noted builder Harold Moser helped pioneer this in the city.)

This reminds me of My Blue Heaven, a study of the working class Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. In the early days of this suburb, it was common for residents to own animals and build their own homes. I suspect this sort of activity would not go over well in more middle or upper class suburbs.

If you are curious, here is what Naperville’s municipal code says about “fowl and livestock”:

1. Housing: All fowl and livestock shall be kept within a pen, coop, building or other enclosure sufficient in size and strength to confine such animals to the owner’s property, except that livestock may be tethered securely to a fixed object outside the enclosure, but only if the animal is so confined to the owner’s property.

2. Zoning: Fowl and livestock may be kept in any area in the City except as otherwise provided by this Chapter or the City’s Zoning Ordinance.

3. Restrictions:

3.1. No livestock shall be kept, housed, maintained or pastured within a distance of two hundred (200) feet of any occupied residence other than that of the owner.

3.2. No pen, coop, building or other enclosure used for the purpose of housing fowl (with the exception of homing pigeons) shall be erected or maintained within twenty-five (25) feet of any occupied residence other than that of the owner.

3.3. Every person maintaining a pen, coop, building, yard or enclosure for fowl or livestock shall keep such area clean, sanitary and free from all refuse. Such areas shall be thoroughly swept at least once every twenty-four (24) hours and the dirt and refuse shall be disposed in a clean and sanitary fashion.

3.4. All feed for fowl or livestock shall be kept in containers that are rodent-proof until put out for consumption of fowl or livestock.

Another report suggests Naperville is somewhat unusual in not regulating this issue more closely:

Homeowners on both sides of Laird’s Rivanna Court property are urging the Naperville City Council to re-examine a decades-old city law that puts no limits on the number of chickens one can have, as long as the pen is cleaned once every 24 hours and is kept at least 25 feet from neighboring homes.

Naperville is one of a few municipalities — including St. Charles, Batavia, Oak Park and Chicago — that allow residents, with a few conditions, to raise chickens at home. But in an email to council members, Laird’s neighbors stressed the city is “no longer a rural farming community but residential with nice homes and smaller backyards.”

I wonder if this is one of those issues in Naperville where formal regulations are unnecessary as social pressure would keep too many people from having chickens. One resident in the story suggests that his chicken coop was opened at night by others. I would guess that could be a lot of disapproving glances and talk if someone started building a chicken house.

When Naperville property switches from proposed church to proposed mosque, opposition emerges

I’ve thought about this scenario before: in an American community, would a proposed church and proposed mosque of roughly the same sizes and impact on the neighborhood encounter the same amount of opposition from neighbors and community members? Here is a case in Naperville that fits this scenario:

For years, HOPE United Church of Christ advertised on its front lawn plans to build a church on 14 acres it owned just southwest of Naperville, and the minister there says he never heard so much as a peep of displeasure.

But those plans fell through, and now that the church wants to sell the property to another religious group, protests have erupted at the Naperville Planning and Zoning Commission. Handmade signs critical of the deal have sprouted on utility poles…

In DuPage County, the Islamic Center is asking Naperville’s Planning and Zoning Commission to recommend annexing the unincorporated Will County land into Naperville. The city surrounds the parcel, and desirable Naperville subdivisions — Tall Grass and Pencross Knoll — are on three sides of the property.

The Islamic Center says it wants to hold gatherings on the property and use the home located there as an office — just as HOPE United has done in the past.

None of the people who publicly addressed the commission about the center’s proposal at Wednesday night’s meeting specifically objected to a mosque.

But more than a dozen said they opposed the annexation and long-term plan to place a religious center on the site.

Fascinating. The complaints from neighbors sound like a lot of typical NIMBY complaints: concerns about traffic, safety due to more kids being in the neighborhood, whether the mosque will be used late at night or at odd times, and the implicit idea that property values might be negatively influenced by this construction.

At the same time, it seems like there is more going on here. One resident would really rather have a trailer park? In Naperville? So a mosque is more problematic than a trailer park? And there are signs being put up to oppose the mosque? This sounds unusual – but also hints at the real reasons mosques are opposed by suburban residents.

I’ll keep watching the situation.

(I’ve been keeping track of several other mosque proposals in the Chicago region. Here are several posts on a proposed mosque in unincorporated Lombard: 9/13/11, 6/29/11, and 1/28/11. In the Lombard case, it appeared the neighborhood was much more welcoming. One survey suggests Americans would be open to a large Buddhist temple nearby but I would guess this question has some social desirability bias and opinions would change if the proposed temple was right near the respondent’s home.)

Lombard mosque approved by DuPage County Board

I’ve been tracking this story in recent months (earlier stories here, here, and here) and it looks like we have a resolution: the DuPage County Board approved plans for a mosque in unincorporated Lombard.

By a 12-4 vote, board members supported revised plans from the Muslim Community Association of Western Suburbs for the Pin Oak Community Center. It will be built just east of Interstate Highway 355, at the southwest corner of Roosevelt Road and Lawler Avenue…

The plan had been controversial because of residents’ objections about traffic down Lawler Avenue into their neighborhood.

But the plan was modified to include an exit onto Roosevelt Road and restrictions on two access drives on Lawler. Also, the association will widen Lawler to three lanes and extend the eastbound lane on Roosevelt Road…

In July, board members deferred their vote on the Pin Oak proposal, but they did deny the group’s plan for a roughly 50-foot-tall dome on the property. The building will not be permitted to exceed 36 feet in height.

It would be interesting to hear the rationale of the 4 board members who voted against this.

The article suggests the controversy about this mosque was due to traffic concerns and the height of the building, typical NIMBY concerns that might be brought up with proposals for any religious structure or any non-religious, non-residential structure. I hope there is a sociologist (or other social scientist) working on testing whether proposals for mosques draw special “NIMBY” attention.

Seeking height variances for DuPage mosques

I’ve been keeping track of several proposals  for mosques in DuPage County (including one near Lombard) that have been working their way through the approval process. One issue has been the height of the buildings. A group looking to build a mosque near Willowbrook is going to seek an exception to existing regulations:

The Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America is one of two Islamic groups to be denied a height variance request this year by DuPage.

County board members granted MECCA’s request for a conditional-use permit so it can build a roughly 47,000-square-foot mosque along 91st Street near Route 83. But in a separate action, they refused to give the group permission to exceed the height restriction of 36 feet so it could have a 69-foot dome and 79-foot minaret.

Mark Daniel, an Elmhurst-based attorney representing MECCA, said the group has reapplied for a shorter 50-foot dome and 60-foot minaret. A public hearing on the new height variance request is scheduled for November…

Board members who opposed the height variance said MECCA representatives failed to show the denial would result in a legal hardship.

While the lawyer for MECCA suggests that there are plenty of religious buildings nearby over 36 feet, the County says the new rules went into effect in 2005 and have been followed since.

I would guess that the 2005 regulations were put into place because of NIMBY concerns: residents didn’t want large structures dominating the sky near them. Since the steeple seems to be on the way out, perhaps having a tall building now indicates that the structure will be quite large, leading to the typical concerns of traffic and late night crowds. Looking at the Google Map satellite view of the intersection of 91st Street and Route 83, it appears there are a number of nearby residential neighborhoods.

If the County has applied these rules to all religious groups, perhaps MECCA could suggest that the entire regulation be examined. Thirty-six feet tall is roughly 3+ stories, somewhat sizable but not that tall. MECCA’s proposal is for about double that height. Indeed, another Chicago-area organization has suggested the height regulations are unfair:

In the meantime, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago this week issued a statement claiming that legal experts have questioned the method DuPage used to adopt its existing height limit. The council said the “potentially illegally adopted” restriction violates state law and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

It would be interesting to then hear from these legal experts.

The effect of the “McMansion ordinance” in Austin

In the past decade, a number of communities across the United States have debated and enacted ordinances intended to regulate teardowns, often termed McMansions. Austin, Texas has gone through this process and Kathie Tovo, a candidate for the city council, discusses her take on the “McMansion ordinance”:

AC: One more fundamental criticism that’s been leveled at your campaign is that your goal of “complete communities” – the live-work-play ideal with affordable family housing – may be at odds with some policies supported by some of the neighborhood associations you’ve been affiliated with. The Austin Neighborhoods Council, for instance, seemed supportive of the McMansion ordinance, which some people argue has facilitated sprawl by preventing the sort of home expansions that would keep growing families in the city.

KT: I guess I just don’t buy that argument, especially about McMansion. Because, for one thing, a lot of people were really concerned about the McMansion ordinance; it was going to kill the building industry in Austin. It really hasn’t, and a lot of the McMansions weren’t adding density to our neighborhoods because they were typically being occupied by a couple of people. I think that you can add on a considerable amount to your house and not be a McMansion. Absolutely, we want to be sure our land development code allows for people living in small bungalows that might have accommodated families 40 years ago when we want them to be able to add on in ways that are appropriate. I think there’s a lot of room for doing that without running up against the McMansion standards. And as you look at older neighborhoods, people are adding on. And in looking at our Families and Children [Task Force] research – families with kids will live in smaller spaces, including multifamily residences, if the spaces are well-designed. I’m married to an architect, and he’s done some additions to older houses for families that wanted to stay in the central city but the house was really too small for their modern standards.

[Editor’s note: In response to this question, Tovo later added the following to her answer via email:

KT: This criticism has little grounding and shows a lack of understanding of the research in this area or the work that has been done by groups like the city’s own Families and Children Task Force. Neighborhood associations tended to be big supporters of many of the amenities that enhance the quality of life for families across the life span: parks, open spaces, sidewalks, and safe pedestrian and bike routes.

The reasons families with children have been leaving the central city are complex…Suggesting that unregulated development will somehow lead developers to create more affordable housing or more family friendly housing is incorrect.

(And for the record – the trend of families leaving the central city pre-exists the McMansion Ordinance.)]

This candidate makes several interesting points:

1. There is an argument out there that cities lose out when they create such ordinances as it drives out middle-class and upper-class residents. If these possible residents can’t tear down an older home and build the kind of suburban home that they desire, they are going to take the tax dollars and go elsewhere. In the long run, the city loses out on the sort of stable residents and tax base that it needs. I’ve seen this argument made in Dallas as well. Tovo suggests this isn’t really the case; people were leaving Austin even before the ordinance, suggesting other factors are also at work.

2. Tovo makes an architectural critique of McMansions, suggesting that people “will live in smaller spaces, including multifamily residences, if the spaces are well-designed.” I wonder if the ordinances/regulations in Austin go far enough to make sure housing units are well-designed.

3. Tovo wants to make clear that she is not opposed to people adding on to their homes – but this has to be done “in ways that are appropriate.” She is trying to chart a middle path between the two poles in the teardown debate: the rights of the community versus the rights of individual property owners.

4. Tovo suggests that unfettered, free-market housing policies will not lead to “more affordable housing or more family friendly housing.” Other communities agree with this as they offer incentives and regulations to insure that some of these structures are created alongside more typical single-family homes.

It sounds like Tovo is trying to tread carefully in these comments (perhaps also highlighted by her follow-up email after the interview). Overall, it sounds like she is promoting New Urbanist type neighborhoods that are walkable, diverse, affordable, and well-designed.

You can read the “McMansion ordinance” here on Austin’s official website.

Suburban treehouse illustrates typical NIMBY debates

A man in Arlington Heights, Illinois built a fairly large treehouse in his backyard: “It has a wraparound deck, two levels, small windows, siding and roofing that mimics the family home’s.” It drew the attention of several neighbors who then complained to the village who subsequently passed new regulations for treehouses. However, since this treehouse was built before the new regulations, it can stay put.

This could just be a local issue except that the pattern of events fits many NIMBY discussions in suburban communities. Here are some of the comments made by people involved in the story:

Village Manager Bill Dixon said treehouses have not been a major issue in town and urged the village board not to overreact to one particular case, no matter how bad.

“There are 18,000 single-family homes in town, but this is the only one we’re hearing about,” he said.

But Trustee Thomas Glasgow, who lives in the neighborhood, said the treehouse is overwhelming. He believes property values in the area have diminished as a result.

At Glasgow’s recommendation, the board agreed to limit the structures to the height of the home on the property.

Mayor Arlene Mulder expressed concern, however, that the code could effectively ban treehouses for some properties.

But Trustee Joseph Farwell said: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.”…

But Piotrowski [one of the neighbors], who spoke at a recent village board meeting, said the new rules don’t go far enough. He wants to see the houses banned all together because he believes they are not safe.

For his part, Belmonte said the whole conflict could have been avoided if Piotrowski had raised his concerns right from the start.

In one story, you have many of the elements of a typical NIMBY issue: a person does something with their property that some neighbors do not like. These neighbors argue the action reduces property values and raises safety concerns. The community ends up creating new regulations to avoid such issues in the future while knowing that they may be limiting people from doing similar things. The property owner says that if the neighbors had simply come to him first, none of the rest of this had to happen.

The key quote to me comes from one of the village trustees: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.” This is true – communities have all sorts of regulations and zoning in place to help limit some of these issues. And much of this has been codified even further in homeowners associations that really limit some of the possible actions by individual owners. Homeowners submit to these regulations because they don’t want to have to worry about what their neighbors might do and to protect their all important housing values. But the enduring question from this story and other similar cases is this: where does a community draw the line between the rights of individual property owners and the interests of neighbors and the rest of the community? At least in Arlington Heights, future treehouse builders will be more limited in what they construct in order to balance these two competing interests.

The Katrina Cottage versus the McMansion

After Hurricane Katrina, there was a need for innovative housing designs in order to quickly rebuild the city’s housing stock. One such design was the Katrina Cottage, a 308 square foot dwelling that was quite portable but was well made and fit with existing architectural themes. The Chicago Tribune asked an employee of an urban planning firm who lives in one of these homes why exactly these homes did not catch on:

Q. You’ve said these little houses have a lot of fans who are attracted to their simplicity and see them as the anti-McMansion. Why didn’t Katrina Cottages catch on?

A. Well, you know, this kind of project would be illegal in most places; building codes restrict room size, and zoning codes restrict lot size. It wouldn’t work in a suburban subdivision; it has to be a small infill development. Dropped randomly into (traditional) subdivisions, the houses look eccentric and experimental.

The reason it works in Ocean Springs is that it’s around similar houses and it’s within walking or biking distance of places to eat and drink, a grocery store, a YMCA, hair salons, barbershop and retail. I rode a bike everywhere and didn’t need a car. If you have easy, walkable access, you don’t need all kinds of stuff in your house.

You see, in a conventional suburban development, they’ve taken an entire town and compressed it into a McMansion — you have the bar somewhere, you have the basement rec room, there’s the TV room, the coffee shop in an espresso machine. There’s a room with workout equipment. In a conventional subdivision, you have to (put all those features into the house) because you don’t have access to anything you can walk to.

There are a few developments based on the idea — there’s Cottage Square, where I stayed. Ross Chapin, a developer in Langley, Wash., builds so-called “pocket neighborhoods” — he’s got people buying 400-square-foot homes for $600,000. And Lowe’s created and still sells plans and kits for (individuals) who want these houses.

Several things are interesting in this response:

1. Conflating all suburban homes with McMansions is a common mistake.

2. The idea that suburban developments don’t want anything too different in terms of design or architecture is accurate. Homes that look too different might just negatively affect property values. On top of this, the idea that many places would find these homes to be illegal seems silly but is likely true.

3. I would be very interested to know what would lead people to pay $600,000 for a 400-square foot home. Check out Ross Chapin’s designs here.

4. You can read more about Ben Bowen’s thoughts here. It sounds like his argument for these small houses includes a certain kind of neighborhood where amenities and daily needs are within an easy walk. These ideas seem quite similar to those of New Urbanism.