The City of Fitchburg’s Plan Commission and Common Council don’t appear to be on the same page when it comes to the North Stoner Prairie neighborhood.
That has left a stalemate on potential development as the two bodies need to agree on any changes to the comprehensive plan.
The commission has continued to support higher density in one particular area of the neighborhood than what the council – and dozens of city residents who have attended the meetings – say the city should. It voted in October on a higher density limitation – 16 units per acre – than the nine the council had approved a month earlier.
That sends the plan amendment back to the council for more debate at its Tuesday, Nov. 13, meeting. If alders vote to approve a different number from the commission’s choice, the process of limiting the density would have to start over again.
The issue revolves around what originally was planned to be a 182-unit apartment building on six acres of the land at the corner of Seminole Highway and Lacy Road. Residents who argued against the proposal told city leaders they want development on the remaining neighborhood land limited to nine units per acre – called medium density – and the council agreed on a 4-4 tie, with Mayor Jason Gonzalez casting a tiebreaker.
A month earlier, the commission had voted to keep the high-density tag weeks after some commissioners called for a compromise.
While the specific apartment proposal has been voted down, developer Chris Ehlers has said some sort of high density will be needed to allow him to build “affordable” ownership housing units nearby, with prices under $300,000 – something alders have stressed in recent discussions about housing.
The land was marked as a limited to six units per acre in the neighborhood plan established more than five years ago. But that plan was changed last year to the unspecified high density designation after one of the parcels was sold to a church, in a deal worked out between Ehlers and Gonzalez, planner Tom Hovel reported in January.
After opposition built this year, with dozens attending meetings in January, June, July, September and October, some alders said they wanted to “restore trust” with the residents now opposed to the development.
In September, after people on both sides of the issue complained about the process, the council voted to change the comprehensive plan to limit the development to nine units per acre. But the city attorney told alders they and the commission had to approve the same changes to the comprehensive plan to allow them to go into effect.
That meant the North Stoner Prairie change, along with three other changes to the long-term plan, would have to wait until the commission got another chance to look at what the council had approved.
On Oct. 16, the commission got that chance, again picking a different number.
Commission chair Carol Poole explained that leaving it with more options through higher density would allow the developer to be creative, saying any plan residents or commission members disliked still could be voted down.
She said the commission had already been “clear at our last meeting that we were not going to approve giant apartment buildings.”
“We’re tripping over numbers, and what we need to see is what is the product,” Poole said. “We can leave it with high and medium, just like it is now, and do that administratively or legislatively.”