The City of Fitchburg’s new comprehensive plan includes wording to end disagreements between the Common Council and the Plan Commission.
On a vote of 7-0, Tuesday, March 10, the council approved the plan, eight months in the making, with wording added to the Jan. 21 draft to assert its power to change or deny Plan Commission recommendations on future changes or additions to the plan.
Alds. Dorothy Krause (Dist. 1) and Julia Arata-Fratta (D-2) voted against an amendment to add the extra wording to the document, with both opposing the extra council power, and Ald. Anne Scott (D-1) was absent.
Under the previous plan, both sides had to agree, and that led to a stalemate of several months in 2018 and 2019 over the North Stoner Prairie neighborhood amendment, broken only by a change in commission membership.
The comprehensive plan is a guide that provides a 20-year outlook on the future of a city’s growth, economic development and future financial investments. It is required by state law to be updated every 10 years.
Other changes to the comprehensive plan include a reorganization of the document to simplify it into four sections – both how and where the city will grow, and what pillars and tools available to encourage that growth – and four revisions to the future land use map.
The most debated part was the extra power it gives alders by reducing the commission’s votes to recommendations.
Last summer, the council chose on a split vote to update the comprehensive in a much more compressed process than its first plan. That was done mostly to schedule its adoption for prior to April’s spring election, which will bring at least two new alders.
City attorney Valerie Zisman discouraged the council from making any changes before adoption because doing so could make the city vulnerable to litigation, she said. She explained that state statutes are not written clearly enough to allow either a municipality’s Common Council or Plan Commission to approve a comprehensive plan on their own.
Alders appeared to vote based on their experiences with two recent debates between the council and the commission over high-density residential development.
Relatives of Ald. Shannon Strassman (D-3) sued the city last year over an open meetings violation related to a high density South Fish Hatchery Road development proposal. She said other cities such as Madison and Janesville give the council the final say on comp plan amendments.
“This is not just to not listen to the Plan Commission, this is just to stop the ping-ponging that keeps going on,” she said. “We’ve been having battles over certain properties and certain issues like Stoner Prairie and Fish Hatchery, and there needs to be something final that just ends it.”
Arata-Fratta said she preferred having a check on both bodies so politics don’t drive development.
“The Plan Commission and its members act as a body that will provide checks and balances to the process,” she said.
Ald. Sarah Schroeder (D-3) eventually voted to include the wording, but she, too, expressed concern over alders politicking, as well as potential litigation fees.
“I do worry about alders being driven by special projects that act as squeaky wheels and not having that a big-picture perspective,” she said. “However, with all those cons, I do think the back-and-forth with the residents has been heartbreaking, and that does guide my decision.”
The new comp plan also more clearly defines what constitutes a minor amendment and a major update, as well as the processes that guide each type of change.
Another change is allowing more specific categories of high density. The classification of high density residential zoning can often range between nine to 60 units per acre.
Proposed by Arata-Fratta, she said having categories within the zoning would allow developers to better understand what kinds of development the city is looking for.
“High density starts at nine units, up to the sky,” she said. “So the idea was how we can create another layer of high density.”
More specific revisions from the previous document include denoting a 40-acre parcel just west of the Lacy Road and Seminole Highway intersection for an Edgewood College as a potential developable site, despite it being in an area with limited utilities, plus two school sites. One is on the southern border, for a future Oregon School District middle school, and another is for the Milestone Democratic School on Index Road, and a site adjacent to Promega off of Gunflint Trail.