Should hoop houses be legal in Elmhurst?

Process to explore changing city ordinance begins at planning committee meeting

hoop house
The Virgil family and friends disassemble their hoop house on Feb. 24. (Elmhurst Titan file photo)

ELMHURST – Even now that the Virgil family’s hoop house has come down, the topic continues to draw crowds to Elmhurst governmental meetings.

A standing-room only crowd filled Monday night’s meeting of the City Council’s Development, Planning and Zoning Committee to address the first item on the night’s agenda – the referral of the hoop house for consideration of a change to the city’s ordinances.

At issue is the membrane structure erected in the fall of 2016 by Nicole and Dan Virgil at their home in the 500 block of South Fairview Avenue to protect their vegetable crops during the winter, thereby enabling them to keep growing year-round. A neighbor complained to the city’s code enforcement, and ultimately an order was issued by the city to the Virgils to take down the structure or face financial penalties.

The house was taken down Feb. 24, four days before they would have faced fines, but the Virgils are hoping that city ordinances can be amended so that they can again make use of the hoop house next fall.

Governmental action

In terms of governmental action on the hoop house issue, there wasn’t a lot to Monday’s meeting. Alderman Scott Levin, chairman of the committee, said that he wanted city staff to study the issue and collect data on other cities’ policies on membrane structures so that he and the other members of the committee could begin to form an opinion as to whether hoop houses should be permitted in Elmhurst.

“For my perspective, at this point, I’m not for or against hoop houses,” Levin said. “I want to look at them and see what they’re all about, and I’m particularly interested in seeing how other municipalities … treat them.”

Levin indicated that the matter would probably come before his committee again at the end of April or beginning of May, and from there it would likely go to the appointed Zoning and Planning Commission, where there would be public hearings and opportunities for the public to weigh in on either side of the issue.

Levin thanked Nicole Virgil for a packet of information that she provided on research into regulations relating to hoop houses in other communities. He said that it would be helpful to city staff as they began their own research into the issue.

“If there is any other scope that you’re interested in, I’m happy to participate in researching it,” Virgil said.

Supporters speak up

While Virgil spoke in measured terms about her research and what she had gleaned from it, the cavalcade of supporters who came to speak in favor of hoop houses was much more emphatic and at times even heated as they expressed outrage at the city’s desire to restrict what they see as something that’s unambiguously positive.

“I think it’s something that is good for our children, good for us,” resident Jessica Keck said. “It’s something that I feel all towns should have.”

Elmhurst resident Jill Perez urged the aldermen to look past the specifics of the Virgil case and look at hoop houses as a larger issue.

“I, the last time I spoke, urged this council to move past the personal part of this,” Perez said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with the Virgil family anymore. People are speaking out for hoop houses, period. I think we can all try and move past some of the divisiveness that has come with this. I hope you see that there is a lot of support in Elmhurst.”

County perspective

“According to DuPage County, we treat hoop houses just like we would treat a shed, as another building outside on the property.”

DuPage County Board member Liz Chaplin, whose district includes a portion of Elmhurst, spoke about the county’s stance on hoop houses.

“According to DuPage County, we treat hoop houses just like we would treat a shed, as another building outside on the property,” Chaplin said. “If somebody is trying to do something good for their family, to make sure they have good food, and teach their kids nice skills, it’s something [to support].”

Levin emphasized repeatedly that Monday’s committee was just the first step in a lengthy process to get an ordinance changed, and that this was not because of any particular complexities related to the hoop house issue itself.

“It’s not unusual for topics like this to be in front of the committee two or three times,” Levin said.

Hoop House Documents 3-13-17 by The Elmhurst Titan on Scribd