By David A. F. Sweet
As a former mayor is fond of saying, “Lake Forest didn’t happen by accident.”
Even in the 19th century, planning was pivotal to the elegant look of the city. In 1857 Almerin Hotchkiss, a landscape gardener, laid out the winding streets to abut ravines and created a plan for 1,200 acres that became Lake Forest College. He also helped design Lake Forest Cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Municipal Services Building is the place to go to get advice from the Community Development Department.
Today, when assessing the viability of projects, the Community Development Department is committed to ensuring that the feel of Lake Forest is not impinged. It plays an active role in preserving the past, assures safe and quality construction in the present, and plans for development and redevelopment in the future – all with a focus on assuring that the overall character of the community and quality of life continues unabated. The department is involved throughout the development process, starting with the time an idea is formulated to the completion of construction and occupancy of a building.
How does the typical process work? The department staff offers advice to property and business owners, architects, and contractors and even those considering moving to Lake Forest early in the process. Once a project begins to take shape, the Community Development staff outlines the required approval process. If Board or Commission review is required, City staff guides the property owner and architect through the application and public hearing process.
Once construction plans are submitted for permit, technical experts in the department review plans for compliance with building and life safety codes. During construction, City building inspectors periodically visit the site, talk with contractors, verify that work is proceeding in compliance with applicable codes and check the site and surroundings to assure that debris are contained, trees are protected from construction activity, and the street is free from mud.
When a project is finished, final inspections are required to close out the permit, bonds that are posted to assure the completion of the work may be refunded, and a certificate of occupancy is issued verifying that the project was completed in accordance with applicable regulations and requirements.
“The Community Development Department’s goal is to educate, support, guide, and assist residents, property and business owners, architects, contractors, and developers as they pursue various types of construction projects,” explained Director of Community Development Catherine Czerniak, who leads a full-time staff of 13. “Our job is to be an ally, not an obstacle, as we work to carefully balance what at times are competing interests.”
Created in the mid-1990s when a handful of departments were consolidated into one, the Community Development Department has ushered through tens of thousands of projects since. Though some assume it is only engaged in the biggest projects in town – such as the new building that is going up at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital – its approvals range from home driveways to new windows, swimming pools to kitchen expansions and even water heaters. In fact, of the 4,000 or so permits issued annually by the Community Development Department, two thirds involve work on single-family homes and duplexes.
Czerniak offered a handful of tips to help homeowners navigate the process smoothly, including:
• Check references for architects and contractors.
• Be cautious about advance payments (roofs and driveways in particular).
• If your architect or contractor is new to the area, encourage him or her to contact City staff early.
• Stay involved in your project and keep up to date on your team’s contacts and discussions with the City.
• Ask your contractors to call for all required inspections in a timely manner and to follow the approved plans.
• Be sure to close out your permit; bonds are refunded only if projects are closed out prior to the expiration of permits.
• If during the project unexpected issues arise or your plans change, contact Community Development staff to determine whether additional reviews or approvals are required.
On the business side, a number of permits involve retrofitting. For example, if a space formerly occupied by a retailer is slated to become a restaurant, installation of a kitchen and the necessary venting will be required. Unlike homeowners, businesses also must submit permits for signage and awnings, and they may need to determine how employee and customer parking needs will be met. On occasion, a new business development will draw negative comments – perhaps most famously when a McDonald’s was proposed on the west side of town. It ended up looking like a cottage rather than a fast-food outlet after negotiations and, ultimately, became a go-to place for many in the community. As well, a neighbor may not like the addition going up next door. Said Czerniak, “The City review processes and regulations are not perfect, but they have served the community well. The goal is to assure that your project, as well as those undertaken by your neighbors and those throughout the community, continue the long tradition of careful planning and quality construction.”