How much density should be allowed in part of the North Stoner Prairie neighborhood continues to be a disagreement between Fitchburg’s Common Council and Plan Commission.
Any potential development for the area will have to wait until they come to an agreement – or agree not to. But the Tuesday, Nov. 27, the council once again was deadlocked on the topic, voting 4-4, with Mayor Jason Gonzalez again breaking it, to send a comprehensive plan amendment back to the commission to limit development to five to nine units per acre.
In September, the council voted identically after a public hearing to send the amendment and three unrelated proposals that were part of the same ordinance back to the commission.
Gonzalez joked that, given it’s the same amendment the council sent the commission in September, they could “just photocopy these things and change the date.”
The commission had forwarded a plan that would allow up to 16 units per acre, which some commissioners called a “compromise” with nearby residents. Many opposed the existing high-density designation on the plan – but not yet in the zoning – for apartments that were proposed there earlier this year.
Commissioners had voted in July to leave the area at high density with no limit, which is what the comprehensive plan calls for. It will remain that way unless the two bodies agree on a change.
City attorney Valerie Zisman has told alders repeatedly that both the council and commission must approve the same amendment per state statute, but some alders and speakers during the public hearing questioned that Tuesday night.
Zisman was not present Tuesday, but city administrator Patrick Marsh reiterated the point.
“If the two bodies don’t agree – currently it’s high density – it would stay high density,” Marsh said. “State statute dictates that the two bodies must agree.”
Zisman was out of the office Wednesday, as well, Marsh told the Star in an email.
Ald. Tom Clauder (Dist. 4) said he disagreed with the attorney’s assessment and added that even if it’s correct, it’s not the way the process should work.
“The Plan Commission should not trump an elected body,” Clauder said.
Changing a comprehensive plan requires an extensive public effort as detailed in the state’s Smart Growth law, adopted in 1999, and all government land-use decisions must conform to that governmental unit’s comprehensive plan.
The plan allows for high density in that area because of an amendment made last year many residents were unaware of, related to the placement of a church in the neighborhood. Dozens have shown up to commission and council meetings throughout this year to protest the inclusion of high-density housing in the plan.
They’ve complained the change, which altered a neighborhood plan established more than five years ago, has led them to lose “trust” in their city government.
Ald. Dan Carpenter (D-3) said the change made last year was a “mistake” and was “stunned” they are still discussing it.
“There was a plan in place,” Carpenter said. “The council made a change to the plan that we should not have made. We are trying to correct our mistake.”
Ald. Tony Hartmann (D-4) was one of the four votes against limiting the plan to five to nine units per acre, and also against sending it back to the commission. He voted “Hell no” to the former, and “heck no” to the latter.
Just before the vote to send it back to the commission, he lamented, “We’re voting for the agony to continue.”
Carpenter said he also “wants this resolved,” but he wanted to do so in support of the neighbors who have spoken at meetings and signed petitions opposing high density.
“If we amend it back to the original proposal, send it back to the Plan Commission … I would hope they would take a step back and do the right thing,” he said.
Some of the alders who voted against the limit of nine want to see more “diversity of housing stock” in the city, Ald. Julia Arata-Fratta (D-2) said. Ald. Dorothy Krause (D-1) added that the city “cannot afford to (be) ... based on large-lot properties” like others in the North Stoner Prairie neighborhood.
“We need to seriously consider tax revenue if we want to keep running the city without raising taxes,” Krause said.
Gonzalez pointed out before the vote that whatever density is allowed in the comprehensive plan, any development proposal would still require its own approval from the council.