Permit scofflaw penalties OK as is, Wilmette committee decides

Village land use committee members have decided to adopt a wait and see attitude when it comes to increasing fines for people who start construction projects without permits.  |  Kathy Routliffe~Sun-Times Media
Village land use committee members have decided to adopt a wait and see attitude when it comes to increasing fines for people who start construction projects without permits. | Kathy Routliffe~Sun-Times Media

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Members of the Wilmette village board’s land use committee, which met July 15, quickly decided that the ungrammatical directive should guide the way Wilmette handles property owners and contractors who start or finish building projects without bothering to get the necessary permits.

Village staff already wield enough tools to keep zoning and permit scofflaws from making the same mistake twice, they decided. Those range from fines all the way to requiring that a project be torn down, or, in the case of contractors, revoking their license to work in the village.

Committee members suggested that a perception that more property owners are ignoring regulations may be just that ­— a perception.

“I don’t know if anything’s really broken,” Trustee Ted McKenna told fellow committee members, as they reviewed records from the community development department.

Those show that only 181, or less than seven percent, of 2,689 permits that Wilmette issued in the past three years were handed out after projects were started or completed. Still, the number is high enough that village officials should work to lower it, Community Development Director John Adler reported.

Adler and committee members McKenna, Mike Basil and committee chair Alan Swanson also agreed that publicizing the regulations, and the cost in fines, or “surcharges,” would help.

News reports about board decisions on permit avoiders help, Adler said in a report he gave to the commission. He added that the village website has been updated to highlight when homeowners and contractors need to get permits.

For Basil, the telling point was the small size of some of the missteps, as well as the relatively small number of actual cases in which permits don’t get requested.

“Despite the perception, I don’t see an increase in the numbers. There are some interesting cases, some press-worthy ones, but not a real increase,” he said.

Village board members decided to take a closer look at the potential problem after handling six requests over the past nine months from property owners seeking retroactive zoning approval. In one recent instance, a Sheridan Road resident needed permission for a pergola he built, and a generator he installed. In another, a New Trier Court resident got the retroactive nod for a walkway his contractor put in without getting village approval

When Swanson asked what the village does with contractors who might fail to get permits in more than one case, Adler said he prefers to meet with them.

“We sit them down, and we’ve had to do it with contractors, even good ones, and say, ‘You’re going to get caught. It might not be us, it could be someone calling us,’ and we tell them it doesn’t make sense to (break the rules) for a $40 permit, or a relatively insignificant permit,” he said. “It generally has the desired effect.”

Under the village’s current policy, scofflaws may be fined, or “surcharged” for $153, or 50 percent of the original permit cost, whichever is greater.

The village “shies away” from issuing citations, but has done it in some situations, such as when a project causes damage to a neighbor’s property, Adler said. And if the village was to encounter a determined repeat offender, “we could probably get them fines of $250 a day for disregarding the permits, which would probably put an end to it.”

If contractors are bad enough offenders, Wilmette has a final arrow in its sheath; the village manager can revoke a contractor’s license to operate in town.

The committee’s recommendation will go to the full board at its next meeting.

In the meantime, Adler promised committee members that his department will continue to track permit scofflaws.

“We will figure out the trend, if it changes, and get back to you if necessary,” he said.

IT’S THE LAW

WHAT: Getting permits

FOR: construction

PENALTY: $153 or 50% more than permit cost

FOR: Talks between village, park district

INFO: www.www.wilmette.com

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