By: Mike Isaacs, Pioneer Press
Should tighter regulations regarding congregate living facilities be adopted in Skokie, it’s not likely to significantly slow down the number of group homes for the developmentally disabled and elderly, village officials say.
The Skokie Plan Commission March 5 recommended minor changes in requirements for group home facilities after village staff studied the issue for months.
Last summer, the Skokie Village Board considered a six-month moratorium on congregate living facilities after seeing a spike in their numbers in Skokie.
“Barriers to their development have been removed, and they are treated like other housing units,” said Community Development Director Peter Peyer when the moratorium was discussed. “At present, with a few exceptions, a congregate living facility can be established with only an administrative permit when in compliance with [regulations].”
Peyer said then that there were seven organizations sponsoring 38 such facilities in Skokie.
“Although these facilities have not caused any unusual problems,” Peyer said, “an additional four facilities are currently planned and there is the potential for numerous additional facilities.”
The idea of a moratorium, though, met with some protest, especially from Open Communities, the north suburban region’s fair and affordable housing advocate.
“Study, yes. “Moratorium, no,” said Skokie resident Gail Schechter, executive director of Open Communities.
Village officials denied that the idea of a moratorium was ever about slowing down the influx of group homes into Skokie.
“Although the term ‘moratorium’ was misunderstood by a few as the intent to curtail or restrict congregate living in the village, this was never the intent or purpose,” said Peyer and Corporation Counsel Michael Lorge in a report late last year. “The village has a proven record as the largest host to congregate living facilities in the North Shore.”
The Village Board never officially adopted a moratorium on congregate living facilities, but Skokie regulations underwent serious study by village staff.
The few tweaks that were recommended by staff and endorsed by the Plan Commission will still leave Skokie with some of the least stringent restrictions on congregate living facilities in the area, village officials say.
“More aggressive limitations on congregate living facilities would be fraught with legal difficulties and more importantly, inconsistent with village norms and practices,” said Peyer and Lorge in their report last year.
Lorge said that courts repeatedly have held that limiting the number of congregate living facilities that can open in an area is “tantamount to limiting the ability of disabled people to live in that area and a violation of the fair housing laws.”
The most significant change recommended by the Plan Commission is to increase required spacing between group homes from 600 feet to 800 feet — although many nearby municipalities require more space at 1,000 feet.
“The changes are actually fairly minor,” said Planning Supervisor Steve Marciani. “There’s no change in whether [congregate living facilities] are a permitted or special use.”
Other recommended changes include defining what’s allowed on the first floor of congregate living facilities, greater detail about bedrooms in the homes and an update of language.
“It’s not asking whether or not the use has the right to be there — just that the site is adequate to accommodate that level of service,” Marciani said of the changes.
According to the village, Skokie’s 40 or so congregate living facilities is by far the most in the area. Neighboring Niles, for example, has only 12.
“Our regulations are significantly less restrictive than other towns,” Marciani said.
He and others also said that transportation, Skokie’s location and other amenities in the village have made Skokie a popular venue for group homes.
Although the Plan Commission unanimously recommended the changes, Commissioner Scott Berman early in the discussion said his inclination was to vote no.
“I don’t think we as a Plan Commission have properly vetted this issue,” he said. “The thing that jumps out to me is the next nearest town having 12 and us having 38.”
Berman said that by not discussing larger policy issues regarding congregate living facilities in Skokie, the village is inviting in more such homes “and deciding this is what we want our village to be.”
Open Communities Fair Housing Director Viki Rivkin said her organization is currently undergoing a comprehensive study of group homes throughout its area, which includes 16 suburbs to the north of the city.
“The group home providers that I’ve spoken to overwhelmingly say that Skokie is a wonderful community and a great place to be able to have a group home,” Rivkin said.
The Skokie Village Board will vote on the recommended changes at a future meeting.
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