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Homeowner Rights Suffer Blow

Trustees, Village Board

I've been to three meetings at Village Hall in the past year to witness three decisions I cared about.  I am 0 for 3.

The first I attended was to observe the annual decision to continue the practice of having Trick-or-Treating on Sunday afternoon, trumping tradition with convenience, flying in the face of how the rest of the country celebrates Halloween.  While I was disappointed, life will go on, and the GHOST-PAC army will grow each year.

The second, was to witness the debate on allowing Aurora Health Care build a clinic on prime Silver Spring property.  Again, I was disappointed in the decision, but I understood it.  When your business district is in a death spiral, you accept sub-optimal establishments, hoping it will work out.

I went to last night's Trustee meeting to hear the debate on curtailing homeowner rights.   To be honest, this one made me angry.

To summarize, the debate was over how homeowners may use their garages.   As Whitefish Bay residents seek to improve their homes, their dilapidated garages are replaced with glorious new structures, often with room above the car park that can be utilized in ways only bound by the homeowner's imagination.   Maybe a home office, maybe a toy room, maybe a neighborhood ping pong arena, or maybe just a simple room with a couch to read books in peace.

Well, imagine no further, Whitefish Bay residents.  You can't do that anymore. 

Four residents spoke at the meeting, two of them architects, all asking: Where is the public outcry for new regulation?   The answer is, there isn't any.  

The trustees based their decision on two specious elements.  Safety, and privacy (aesthetics).  Since fires can break out in garage spaces, Whitefish Bay "shouldn't" allow habitable space above them.   An audience member debunked that idea with two hits:  First, we allow people to live atop attached garages all the time.  Second, new garages are required to be built to fireproofing standards.  

As for the "privacy" rationale, whereby residents don't want tall remodeling projects blocking out their view, Trustee Siegel aptly suggested that occurs frequently in Whitefish Bay, as people are allowed to construct additions to their homes, which certainly alter the view of neighbors. 

Furthermore, we have an Architectural Review Commission who makes sure all projects are of "proper scale and mass."    For the most part, these garages with floorspace above will be built.  The question is, what can people do with them?

At one point, Trustee Roemer, who was chairing this part of the meeting, said he was uncomfortable with the rules at hand, and he thought the Board would not be able to vote on them until the issues had been resolved, since the debate had exposed many unaddressed problems.  However, since the "Plan Commission had worked on this for so long", sending it back to them wouldn't be productive.  It appeared the Trustees just wanted to move on, flaws notwithstanding.  They then passed each rule as written, with a couple feeble dissents per rule.

As a guess, I think Trustees Roemer and Fehring, who cast the two lone dissenting votes, were frustrated but swept up in the bunch.

Honestly, this kind of regulation is infuriating.  Whitefish Bay is landlocked.  Lot sizes are small.  Homeowners should be encouraged to do their best with the small property they have with the rules already in place, .   The answer to residents desiring more space to inhabit on their property shouldn't be "MOVE TO MEQUON."  

What angers me the most, however, is that this is a classic case of lawmakers passing a regulation that the public would overwhelmingly reject.   There were 4 village residents who spoke passionately and knowledgeably against passage.  There were ZERO residents there to speak in favor, besides the ARC chair who spoke informationally.  Yet the Trustees imagined hoards of Fonzies, secretly renting out 2nd floors of garages (with no plumbing).  The Trustees imagined fictional Villagers taking umbrage with neighbors using space above their new garages for offices, or recreation, or dozing.  

To an extent, I blame myself.  I should have written a column weeks ago, maybe snared a few more residents who care about their rights as homeowners to show up.  On the other hand, would the Trustees have listened had 10 people showed, or 20?   The Trustees were using their imaginations about unspoken, theoretical neighbor unhappiness which apparently trumped the passionate pleas from those actually in attendance.

(And for the record, I don't have a garage, so I am not biased to favor lax rules.  I do, however, realize my family has doubled in the past two years, and my 1300 sq. foot home is getting smaller by the minute.  A home with an extra room over the garage could be exactly what I'm looking for in my next WFB residence, but alas.)


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