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Property rights vs. Oak Park's Wrights: after seven years, debate goes on

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Ronald Reagan was still in the first term of his presidency when Oak Park started discussing an ordinance to preserve its stock of architecturally valuable buildings. That was in 1984, and in the ensuing seven years little progress has been made. An ordinance has been proposed, but it probably won't pass anytime soon. Oak Park's seven-person board of trustees is paralyzed, afraid of upsetting either side of what has become a rancorous debate. This legislative standstill leaves about 75 architectural jewels (including 25 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings) vulnerable to the whims of whoever happens to own them.

"The trustees are being very cautious," says Frank Heitzman, chairman of the local preservation council that drafted the ordinance. "They're afraid of lawsuits. They're afraid of some people accusing them of spending public money poorly. They're afraid of people saying their property rights are being taken away. They're afraid."

The most recent attempt to adopt an ordinance came at a June 24 meeting, when, after two hours of talking, the trustees decided to postpone the matter for at least 30 days.

"These delays are ridiculous," says Marc Blesoff, one of only two trustees willing to take a stand. "We have followed the most democratic process you can imagine. We have heard from everyone who wants to speak. It's time to fish or cut bait."

At the center of the controversy is the 11-member Historic Preservation Commission, one of several trustee-appointed voluntary boards in Oak Park. As the commission sees it, Oak Park derives its strength from the diversity of its architecture, particularly its Prairie School houses--Oak Park has more Wright-designed structures than any other community in the world.

"Oak Park has an international importance because of our standing in the architectural community," says Margaret Klinkow, former director of the commission. "These buildings are a revenue source. About 68,000 tourists come to Oak Park each year to visit them--that means about $5.5 million for the economy."

Over the years the village has set aside two historic districts (the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and the Ridgeland Historic District) encompassing roughly 3,100 buildings. No new rules came with these designations; property owners only have to follow the ordinary village building code. That means they could slap a porch on a priceless Wright structure or remove all of its windows (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) or side it with asphalt shingling (as one man did).

In 1988 the commission began to devote most of its time to writing a historic-preservation ordinance. Their initial goal was to protect all 3,100 houses in both districts, and they saw nothing insidious about their endeavor. Hundreds of municipalities (including Chicago) have mandatory preservation codes. Given the significance of Oak Park's architecture, it was surprising such codes had not been adopted years ago.

"We aren't trying to be policemen--we want to be helpful," says Klinkow. "If you want to put an air conditioner in a Wright home, we can help you do it in a way that won't blemish the house and will ultimately save you money. The commissioners are reasonable people."

Their first draft was completed by December 1989. It required binding review by the commission for exterior work done on any home in either historic district. Any resident who disobeyed the commission's decision (which was subject to appeal to the board of trustees) could be fined. The reaction was a public outcry.

"They are trampling on my civil rights," says Gary Gress, who owns a house in one of the districts. "I don't want anybody ordering me to bring my building plans for their technocratic approval. Within reason I should be able to do what I want with my property. It is, after all, my property. And the last time I looked this was a free country."

Money was also an issue. Who was going to compensate property owners if the commission's recommendations ended up in greater construction costs? And how many new staffers would the commission need to accomplish its goals? "Who's going to compensate the home owner who gets stuck with a higher construction bill?" says Gress. "And how can the village justify hiring more employees? These questions have never been answered."

Klinkow counters that the commissioners would try to help home owners cut construction costs and that only one part-time staffer (at a salary of about $20,000) was needed. As for the argument over personal property rights, she says, well, that's a tricky subject. Even the most adamant advocate of individual rights would protest if, say, his neighbor turned his garage into a body shop. In other words, people may demand the freedom to do what they want with their property, but when it comes to their neighbors, they demand regulation.

"In Oak Park we have all sorts of laws that limit individual freedoms in the name of the larger good," says Klinkow. "We have leash laws, pooper-scooper laws, laws that limit the length of grass, laws that say you can't leave your garage doors open on the alleys. In this case I think the village has a right to declare that certain pieces of property are so valuable to the general public that they must be protected."

Gress disagrees, arguing that while reasonable people can agree that dog poop should be scooped, there can be no fair appraisal of aesthetic value. "The commission assumes that every house in the historic districts is an architectural jewel, and that's not so," he says. "My house is affordable and nice to live in, but it's not significant. Some of these so-called invaluable houses range from boring to ugly--they deserve to be torn down. I know of a Wright-designed building that is a three-story monstrosity. It looks like a Caribbean apartment building. The commission talks about responsible legislation, but they're really just inflicting the police power of the state on other people's lives."

Gress's comments were echoed by at least a dozen residents at several meetings in the early months of 1990. Not surprisingly the trustees asked the commission to draft another ordinance.

The new ordinance, which was introduced in December 1990, eliminated all binding review, except for buildings designated as landmarks--a status conveyed by the commission at the property owner's request. But again, the advocates of property rights protested--denouncing any compulsory review.

By this time Oak Park was in the middle of a local election, in which three new board members were elected: Alice Jones, Gary Cole, and Vernette Schultz. And no trustee or candidate wanted to take any controversial stands. A few days after the election Heitzman invited all the trustees to discuss the ordinance with the commission.

All the while Klinkow's frustration was growing. "In early May there was a trustees' meeting and the other side spent several hours berating the trustees for even considering the ordinance. I don't know how most residents feel about this issue, but the few opponents who attend meetings are very vocal. Everybody came away from that meeting saying the ordinance was dead. And then I got this idea that came to me in the middle of the night."

Klinkow's idea was to have her husband, Peter, apply for a permit to cover the stucco exterior of their Wright house with aluminum siding. "We never intended to side our house," she says. "We only wanted to make a point about the vulnerability of these buildings. To our amazement, the village issued us a permit without asking any questions."

For their efforts the Klinkows received media coverage but few local converts; village officials were barraged with letters and calls from outraged architectural buffs all over the country. "It was a cheap trick," says Gress, "in which they created an artificial threat by showing that the only real threat to these structures is if the owner does something irrational."

"That's just the point," Klinkow counters. "The ordinance wouldn't affect all of the home owners who take care of their property. It's only triggered by a building-permit request. And there's only a problem if the home owner wants to do something irrational and destructive."

Whatever the case, on June 24 the trustees--still stinging from their nationwide rebuke--met to consider the ordinance once again.

Blesoff opened with a recollection about a recent trip to Michigan, where he visited his friends "Robert and Vickie who live in Ypsilanti, where the building code tells people what color they can paint their houses. I asked Robert how he felt about that, and he said, 'We love our neighborhood.' We're not telling people what color to paint their home. We do not intrude on personal rights. But I think it's time we passed this ordinance."

The other trustees had no response. Schultz called the Klinkows traitors for making Oak Park and the trustees "look like fools." Jones said the proposed ordinance gave the commission members too much authority. Cole said it was difficult to understand. And village president John Philbin--noting that four of the seven trustees opposed it--suggested postponing a vote for at least another month. "I don't want to have a John Wayne showdown on this and have it come out four to three," he said. "Especially if the four are not on my side."

Most observers figure the trustees will adopt the ordinance only after all compulsory reviews are eliminated. "The way the ordinance now reads, I have to allow the commission to review any exterior building plans," says Gress. "In the end I don't have to do what they say--their opinion is not binding--but I still have to listen to them. And that's not right. I don't want to have to be summoned to any meeting. If they want to help me, fine. They can come to my house and talk to me before I make any plans. But the onus should be on them, not me."

If such an ordinance passes, Oak Park will, in effect, not have changed its current law at all. That won't satisfy preservationists, so the debate over protectionism will drag on. "It may be painful for some people to confront, but there is a real live difference of opinion here," says Blesoff. "One way or another we're going to have to deal with it, because it's not going to magically go away."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.

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