Towns build barriers to big-box boredom

When you think of a quaint village of specialty shops, art studios and $2 million homes, cookie-cutter designs, long the bain of many suburbs, don't immediately come to mind.

And Long Grove means to keep it that way.

Since its adoption in 2002, the town's anti-monotony ordinance has forced residential developers to vary roof heights of new construction from those of neighboring properties, include several floor plans in their subdivisions and add chimneys, dormers or front porches to prevent one home from looking like every other on the block.

"A lot of the houses we see going up are custom homes being built on custom lots," said James Hogue, village planner with Long Grove. "We have a lot of people building their dream homes, so we have a lot of different and varied architecture in the village."

That's one of the reasons for the anti-monotony ordinance.

"The village wanted to make sure that this flavor and variety was kept intact. That was the impetus for the ordinance. You can build cookie-cutter type homes even if they are high-end homes. We wanted to prevent that," Hogue said.

Long Grove is far from alone among affluent Chicago suburbs in that respect.

Though most new construction in Chicago's wealthier suburbs doesn't take place on the large scale of that of sprawling subdivisions, that doesn't mean planning officials don't want variety.

Take southwest suburban Homer Glen, for example, with plenty of new houses starting at $750,000 and more that's in a building boom. In 2001, the village passed an exterior construction ordinance that spells out the type of materials developers can in a new home. The ordinance basically states that homes must be made of stone or brick, eliminating a procession of aluminum-sided homes.

But even brick and stone can become monotonous. So Paula Wallrich, the village's new assistant manager, is helping the village create new guidelines that will spell out what residential builders can and cannot do when building new homes. Wallrich is excited but cautious. She knows that communities, especially high-end ones such as Homer Glen, can go too far when trying to be different. The key is to give builders enough choices in materials, features and elevations.

Wallrich had worked in nearby Frankfort for 14 years before moving to Homer Glen this summer. So she's been in municipal planning long enough to know that the monotony crackdown is fairly new. The anti-monotony movement has gotten rolling in the last five to 10 years, she says, a result of the housing boom. Villages needed to crack down to protect themselves, whether the homes sold for $200,000 or $1 million, Wallrich said.

Consider how home building changed. Decades ago, developers built maybe five to 10 homes in new communities, Wallrich said. Now subdivisions can go up 100 houses at a time, Wallrich said. Monotony ordinance, anyone?

Wallrich urges crafting them with care, however, to keep from tying developers' hands.

"I've seen a lot of communities draft architectural guidelines," Wallrich said. "The key is that these really be guidelines. I think in some communities' efforts to root out monotony may cause these communities to actually end up with it. They pass an ordinance that is so restrictive, it narrows down building choices to just a few stereotypes."

Wallrich points to communities that require builders to always use brick on their homes' first floors. What happens? Builders, facing their own economic pressures, offer just three or four models in a development. The end result are a lot of nice homes with brick first floors that tend to look exactly like their neighbors' three doors down.

"Now, if a community works with the builders a little bit more on a one-to-one basis, you get a little more creativity and a lot less monotony," Wallrich said.

Woodstock is trying that with its new anti-monotony ordinance that withholds building permits for detached or duplex homes similar in appearance to any dwelling on the street and within 300 feet. To determine similarity, the city's building inspector studies roof types and heights, the location of windows and doors and the size and location of garage doors. Houses of different styles -- say a ranch next to a tri-level -- still may not pass anti-monotony muster but Woodstock has built in an appeals process. City officials say the new ordinance has met no resistance from builders or homeowners.

"We made an attempt to be somewhat understanding of the builders' issues, and yet, at the same time, create a more attractive streetscape in the city," said Jim Kastner, planning and zoning administrator for the city. "We don't want people to drive down the streets and see the same facade over and over again."

Lane Kendig, one of the owners of Kendig Keast Collaborative, a national planning firm based in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., has long helped municipalities draft effective anti-monotony ordinances. As they become more popular, Kendig says, they are also more sophisticated.

Today's monotony ordinances often contain what would once be considered radical elements, Kendig said.

For instance, some ordinances specify that builders must vary lot sizes in their subdivisions, which forces them to do the same with house sizes and floor plans. Others require builders to include a variety of landscaping around their new homes.

The most effective ordinances also spell out the review process, Kendig said. He recommends municipalities hire professionals to take the review out of the political realm.

Such ordinances haven't curtailed residential building, Kendig said. On the contrary, most builders offer a range of homes -- especially those at the high end.

"Most of the big national production builders or even the big local builders already have some minimal standard of their own," Kendig said. "They really don't want the same identical house showing up next to each other in their developments."

Barrington, another Chicago suburb known for high-end, custom homes, is mostly built out. Still developers find themselves working with pockets of land. Jim Wallace, director of the village's building and planning department, said two small subdivisions are going up.

The village doesn't have a general anti-monotony ordinance. But it does include an anti-monotony clause for each new subdivision. The clause is fairly typical, Wallace says, stating that no houses within two or three lots of or across the street from each other can be of the same design.

Wallace says even such an uncomplicated stipulation keeps the cookie-cutters away. Villages need to place regulations even on developers building high-end subdivisions, Wallace says. Even high-end builders, he said, will offer a limited number of floor plans and designs to save money.

"Whatever market niche a developer is trying to fill, it can still to some degree be perceived in their interests to cut costs by using the same design often," Wallace said. "Whether it's a million-dollar home or a $300,000 home ... it's not inexpensive to develop all those different floor plans and styles."

Ray Wolford, director of sales for Kimball Hill Homes, says his company typically gives buyers the option to add rooms, which necessarily changes the look of the house.

He also warns against over-regulation to keep from pricing too many buyers out of the market.

"If you're building a larger home, and the purchasers are more affluent, they are willing to spend the money to make the home look nice," Wolford said. "That's generally not much of a problem. But when you're in the outlying communities and buyers are trying to get into a home, period, and are really stretching, the monotony ordinances can be more of a challenge."

Despite the challenges such ordinances present to builders, city planners don't expect anti-monotony legislation to slow soon -- even with some suburbs eschewing them.

Douglas Pollock, Burr Ridge's director of community development, said that the village doesn't see the need for one.

The reason? Developers working in Burr Ridge are building custom homes, not tract residences.

"These homes tend to be unique by themselves, without the need for any regulations," Pollock said. "Monotony has never been an issue with single-family homes here."

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Anatomy of anti-monotony

\ The Village of Long Grove adopted an anti-monotony ordinance in 2002. Here's a closer look at it:


*No detached single-family dwelling may be similar to any other along a street or cul-de-sac or within 1,500 feet, whichever is more restrictive.

*Shadow lines created by roofs help differentiate homes. Any detached single-family home with a pitched roof must have eaves that extend a sufficient distance to create distinct shadow lines.

*Within a subdivision or planned unit development, no more than 25 percent of garages may be front loads. The ordinance provides a list of preferred alternatives to this style.

*Owners building more than one detached single-family dwelling must use at least four of the following techniques to avoid monotony: dissimilar roof heights, varied roof orientation, unique floor plans, varied placement on lots, rotating floor plans by 90 degrees, varied widths, different architectural styles or details for chimneys, dormers, porches and materials.


*Each detached single-family home must have exterior windows, doors, trim and decorative moldings of similar style and quality.

*With some exceptions, siding materials or veneers must be identical or substantially similar.

The upshot

To ensure these requirements are met, the owner must submit a plan for each single-family dwelling to the building superintendent for review. The owner can appeal the decision to the architectural board within 10 days by filing a written notice of appeal with Long Grove's clerk.

-- Dan Rafter