A Chicago neighborhood association wants Planning and Zoning board to deny a family’s request to build a garage to accommodate their daughter’s wheelchair.
By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
On IAC, I write a lot of posts about mandatory homeowners and condominium associations that choose to deny disability accommodations. For some reason, some board members of HOAs resent the fact that residents with disabilities need reserved parking spaces, specially equipped vehicles in their driveways, wheelchair ramps, or service animals.
But today’s post features a different kind of HOA — a voluntary membership neighborhood association that claims to be concerned about historic preservation.
The Old Town Triangle Association (OTTA) is currently making a huge stink about one family’s zoning change request to renovate their home. The homeowners simply want to make their house accessible to their disabled 13-year-old daughter.
Brief overview of the homeowners’ story.
In 2015, Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann purchased a home in the Old Town Triangle historic district of Chicago. The couple has 4 children, one of whom has an incurable medical condition, and uses a wheelchair.
Before they purchased their home in Old Town Triangle, it was once used as a fourplex apartment. The structure had been abandoned in 2010, and was in a run down state at the time of purchase. At the time, neighbors referred to the dilapidated property as the ‘rat house.’
But Deakin and Diehlmann had vision. They purchased the home with the intent of renovating it to meet their growing family’s needs, incorporating accessibility features for their daughter. An architect helped the homeowners to design plans for the project, including an elevator and a 2-car garage behind the home.
In 2017, the couple received approval of their plan from two local historic preservation agencies, and they even obtained a permit from the City of Chicago.
But then OTTA stubbornly objected to the project. The neighborhood association is urging the Planning and Zoning commission to vote “no” on the homowners’ request for a garage.
OTTA President Steve Weiss, and several other neighborhood association members, insist that the addition of a garage will ruin the look of their historic neighborhood.
So, for this reason alone, the homeowners should suck it up and sacrifice their own daughter’s health, safety, and quiet enjoyment of home?
To get a good idea of just how petty and self-absorbed a neighborhood association can be, check out this well-written opinion article from another Chicago resident with a disability.
Chicago Neighborhood Association Calls Proposed Home Remodel for Disabled Girl ‘Horrible’
November 20, 2018
A neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois has gotten into the Scrooge spirit this holiday season with its fight against a home remodel for a disabled 13-year-old girl.
In 2017, Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann, whose daughter uses a wheelchair due to a degenerative condition, applied for permits to remodel a home they purchased in the Old Town Triangle neighborhood of Chicago. The former apartment complex still had beautiful original stained glass and woodwork but had been a run-down mess for years. Neighbors called it “the rat house.” When the family bought the property, they submitted plans to the city for a full remodel, including a garage and elevator to accommodate their daughter’s needs.
Their plans were approved, and the project should have moved forward. But before they could begin construction of the garage, members of the Old Town Triangle Neighborhood Association found out about it and have spent the past year trying to stop them, calling the proposed remodel “horrible” and demanding that the Zoning Board of Appeals deny the permit. After a hearing on November 15, the board issued a continuance and is set to rule on the matter December 21 if the parties can’t reach an agreement.
The Old Town Triangle Neighborhood Association displays a particularly toxic pattern of ableism I’ve experienced far too many times — ignorant, often financially well-off people who denigrate accessible design as ugly and accuse those of us who need it of being unreasonable. I had a similar experience with my condo association when I lived in Los Angeles. They claimed simple modifications to the building, like changing the front door handle from a knob to a lever would be “unsightly,” and a resident refused to switch parking spaces with me even though I couldn’t deploy my ramp in my assigned space. I had numerous problems over the seven years I lived there, and finally couldn’t take it anymore.
To really put this issue into perspective, you must read the entire whiny letter from OTTA President Steve Weiss, displayed within the following article:
Excerpt from the article:
Weiss went on to write if the zoning board approved the plans for the renovation, he would soon follow with construction plans of his own. It’s a slippery slope when you start allowing homeowners to make certain renovations within historic districts, he argued.
“Do not approve this request to have a garage built,” he wrote. “If you do, I will have my lawyers contact you immediately about building my garage and my friends across the street will do the same. Then we’re like Wells Street and no longer a historic district. It’s game over for preservation!!!”
Great. If the City’s zoning committee doesn’t reject the family’s reqest for an accessible garage, then OTTA’s President and some of his neighbors are prepared to retaliate by demanding permits to build their own garages.
Very mature. It’s reminiscent of the petulant child who threatens his parents, “If you let my baby brother have one cookie before dinner, then I and my friends will finish off the whole cookie jar. So there!”
To see what the garage might look like, check out the artist’s rendering of in this article:
Dispute continues over handicapped-accessible garage in Old Town Triangle (Chicago Sun Times)
Clearly, the homeowners have gone out of their way to create a historically sensitive design. The garage is intended to blend seamlessly into their home and surrounding architecture.
Looks a heck of a lot better than the abandoned ‘rat house’ with its formerly littered lot.
Nevertheless, it just isn’t’ good enough for a handful of difficult people in Old Town Triangle Association.
About Old Town Triangle Association (OTTA)
Note that OTTA is a voluntary membership neighborhood association.
You can read their Mission statement here. Here’s a portion of it:
Under the Articles of Incorporation (adopted June 10-12 1952, amended October 20, 1966 and January 21, 1982) for the Old Town Triangle Association, the purpose(s) of the organization are: To improve conditions of life, work, recreation, health and Safety; to foster and develop a neighborhood plan; and to aid and assist and sponsor neighborhood activities in the area of the city of Chicago bounded by [the former] Ogden Avenue, North Avenue, and Clark Street.
In limitation of its other purposes as aforesaid, the corporation is organized exclusively for charitable, religious, educational, and scientific purposes, or the making of distributions to organizations that qualify as exempt under section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (or the corresponding provision of any future United States Internal Revenue Law).
Among their stated goals, OTTA aims to “Preserve the architectural and historical integrity of buildings in the Triangle,” “Encourage social interaction among neighbors and involvement in the Triangle,” and to “Ensure the safety of residents in the Triangle.”
How does preventing a family from building a garage to accommodate a wheel chair ramp ensure a disabled teenage girl’s safety?
Does dividing the Old Town Triangle into factions for or against the Deakin’s and Diehlmann’s Zonging request encourage positive social interaction?
In the end, it seems that OTTA is far more concerned with focusing on historical preservation, above all else. But the question remains: what’s really behind the objection to accommodation of a disabled resident?
The root of neighborhood division
Unlike a mandatory membership homeowners’ association, a neighborhood association such as OTTA does not mandate collection of dues from its members.
But, despite this distinction, the presence of property restrictions, along with a voluntary homeowner group to push for enforcement, can absolutely suck all the joy out of homeownership.
The point being that, even if the U.S. were to outlaw all HOAs, we’d still have the problem of underlying property and land use restrictions, plus zoning requirements, and its small group of zealots hell-bent on enforcing the rules No Matter What.
In this case, Old Town Triangle property owners must also answer to the Historic District/Planning and Zoning Committee and a Landmarks Commission. The bureaucratic mix only further complicates matters for property owners.
The purpose of the Planning and Zoning Committee:
Each month, members consider requests for proposed exterior changes to existing buildings, new construction, and applications for zoning changes in the Triangle. Their deliberations range from the appropriateness of building materials used in rehabbing and construction projects to the height of fences and building additions. The Guidelines for Alterations to Historic Buildings and New Construction, prepared by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, serves as the guide for their recommendations. These recommendations are sent to the Alderman of the 43rd Ward and to appropriate city commissions and departments for approval. In every instance, the final decision on any rehab project rests with the Landmarks Commission.
Since neighborhood relations figure prominently in any rehabilitation project, members of the Historic District/Planning & Zoning Committee work with neighbors to maintain good relations between residents who are making changes to their properties and those who live in adjoining buildings.
On matters of neighborhood-wide concern, a community meeting is held and all neighbors are invited to express their views on the issue. In most cases where a community meeting is held, the 43rd Ward Alderman is a key participant in the proceedings.
Chicago neighborhood association’s influence
Even though OTTA has no direct power to enforce aesthetic standards in their neighborhood, the organization can and will exert a great deal of indirect political pressure to the gatekeepers of building permits needed by these homeowners.
It would be a shame if the Zoning Committee denied a 13-year-old girl’s wheelchair accessible garage and ramp to her home, despite every effort from her parents to make their design aesthetically pleasing and appropriate to its surroundings.