Winnetka nixes commercial landmarks
The building at 503 Chestnut St. is considered worthy of landmark designation, according to the Winnetka Landmark Preservation Commission. | Kimberly Fornek~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 13, 2012 7:47AM
The Village of Winnetka doesn’t have any preservation districts that limit property owners’ ability to alter a home’s appearance or tear it down and start anew. Nor can preservationists nominate a home or structure for landmark status against the owner’s will.
But the voluntary nature of Winnetka’s landmark ordinance hasn’t prevented a dust-up over one commercial property owner’s request to have four downtown buildings designated as local landmarks. The petitions for landmark standing, the first for commercial properties in the village, resurrected tensions between Winnetka preservation proponents and fierce defenders of property owners rights.
Four ordinances assigning landmark status to four buildings owned by Kerby Kisor of BJB Properties were defeated Tuesday night in a succession of 3-4 votes. The buildings are located at 723 Elm Street; 503 to 507 Chestnut Street; a corner building at 545 to 561 Lincoln and 743 to 749 Elm Street, and 874 Green Bay Road. The council did approve a landmark designation for a residential property at 1153 Asbury Avenue.
Opponents expressed concern about the shift in property taxes if homeowners and commercial property owners avail themselves of various tax breaks for landmark properties.
The “no” votes were cast by Jack Buck, Patrick Corrigan, Arthur Braun and Richard Kates.
Voting in favor of the designations were Village President Jessica Tucker and trustees Jennifer Spinney and Stuart McCrary.
To date, owners of 15 Winnetka landmark homes have taken advantage of a Property Assessment Freeze program that applies only to residential properties. To be eligible for an eight-year freeze, homeowners must invest at least 25 percent or more of the home’s value in improvements.
According to a village memo, eight of those are currently assessed at full value. Of the seven remaining homes, four are fully frozen and three are in the four-year transition period when the higher value is being phased in at a rate of 25 percent a year.
The village analysis pegged the extra village taxes paid by Winnetka homeowners as a result of the freeze at about $3.23 a year.
“Three dollars and 23 cents is an amount most Winnetkans would gladly pay for the common good, especially if you look at the enormous positive change in the value of the properties after the freeze expires,” said Louise Holland, chair of Winnetka’s Landmark Preservation Commission.
But Kates expressed concern the commercial designation could open the door for commercial property owners to seek Class L status from the Cook County Assessor’s Office. The tax break requires commercial owners to invest 50 percent of the value in improvements.
Kates noted the assessment ratio on Class L commercial properties drops from 25 percent to 10 percent for a period of 10 years. The ratio is raised to 15 and 20 percent during years 11 and 12, respectively.
“The assessed value would be knocked down by two-thirds, which is a significant pass-down to the rest of the community,” said Kates.
Buck contended that other taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the renovations.
BJB Properties’ consultant on the petition, Elizabeth Breiseth, of MacRostie Historic Advisors, said the Winnetka buildings would not be eligible for Class L tax treatment because Winnetka lacks the type of state certification required for participation.
Pressed to explain why the firm is seeking the designations, Breiseth said the local petitions are in conjunction with requests to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Those steps could allow the owner to qualify for federal income tax credits in the future.
Tucker voiced the view that improvements made by owners of historic properties ultimately lead to higher property valuations, benefiting the entire community.