OLD TOWN — Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann fought for two years to build a wheelchair-accessible garage at their historic Old Town home for their teen daughter.
But they’ve only been able to start construction on the project within the past few weeks — the culmination of a years-long battle with a powerful neighborhood association and a lawsuit that was resolved in the family’s favor.
“It’s been almost two and a half years, so it’s felt like a long time,” Deakin said. “It’s a big relief.”
The battle over the garage started in November 2018, as Deakin and Diehlmann were renovating to convert the four-flat they bought in the 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue into a single-family home. They purchased the home in 2015.
The hold-up stemmed from a stop work order issued by the city after it determined the Department of Buildings had mistakenly and preemptively issued the Deakins a permit to build the garage in late 2018 before a zoning change needed for the property had been granted.
The family’s home dates to 1891 and sits within the Old Town Triangle Landmark District, so multiple layers of city approval are needed to make structural changes to a property.
After the Zoning Board of Appeals approved the change during a contentious December 2018 meeting, the Old Town Triangle Association sued the Deakins and the Zoning Board, claiming the change was wrongfully granted because the proposed garage clashed with the neighborhood’s character and historic integrity.
A year ago, Deakin and Diehlmann fired back with a separate federal lawsuit alleging harassment at the hands of the neighborhood group.
The litigation between the family and Old Town association is ongoing. But in October, a judge in the garage case ruled the Zoning Board’s original decision to approve the addition was correct, allowing Deakin and Diehlmann to move forward with construction on their home.
“We really appreciate that they ruled in our favor,” Diehlmann said. “It’s a huge relief, and our daughter, [Ava Deakin], is excited that she’ll be able to move into a home that’s fully accessible.”
Representatives from the Old Town Triangle Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Deakin said they got the ruling in early October and had crews at the house to resume construction by the end of the month.
Still, construction on the home has been slowed down even further thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which has crews working in smaller groups to keep safe, both parents said.
“We got the news that we were ready to go, but COVID wasn’t quite ready to leave,” Diehlmann said.
The family is looking at late spring for their possible move-in.
In the second lawsuit, Deakin and Diehlmann accuse the neighborhood group’s members of violating the Fair Housing Act by engaging in a pattern of discrimination, harassment and vandalism toward the family.
According to the lawsuit, the family claims their locks have been damaged and bags of dog feces have been left on their driveway and front yard since the dispute began. They say they were also harassed by members of the organization.
Members of the Old Town Triangle Association long have maintained the zoning dispute was not about discrimination, but about their fight to preserve the historic charm of Old Town.
In 2018, Steve Weiss, then-president of the Old Town Triangle Association, wrote a letter to Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), saying he “doesn’t understand why [the Deakins] chose to buy a house in a Landmarked Zone when you have these needs.”
“I don’t mean to be heartless or uncaring but this is not the neighborhood for that,” Weiss wrote. “Here you conform to the rules, not the other way around.”
Amy Kurson, an attorney representing the association, said during the 2018 zoning meetings the Deakins’ appeal shouldn’t “tug at the board’s heartstrings,” and the board’s decision should be within the scope of zoning law.
The Deakins and their attorney declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.