City of Fitchburg

Fitchburg alders are hoping the fourth time is the charm in finding an agreement with the Plan Commission over the North Stoner Prairie neighborhood’s future.

Plans for the southeast corner of the Seminole-Lacy intersection have drawn criticism from area residents for more than a year, and in recent months, the Common Council and commission could not agree on how much density should be allowed. Commissioners have repeatedly voted to allow high-density of up to 16 units per acre while alders have stuck to a more restrictive zoning classification.

The council voted 5-2 Tuesday to send a proposed comprehensive plan amendment back to the commission. It will wait for the June agenda to ensure there is a full complement of commissioners.

The zoning in the neighborhood plan approved more than five years ago limited it to six units per acre, but a quiet change to allow unlimited density in 2017 drew the ire of neighbors, who complained they were not properly notified. Developer Chris Ehlers eventually came forward with an apartment proposal in 2018 the council rejected.

Some city leaders have wanted to change the zoning back since, while others have wanted to leave flexibility for the developer to come up with creative proposals, explaining they can deny projects if they don’t get the support of neighbors. That led to multiple 4-4 ties last year, with then-Mayor Jason Gonzalez often breaking the tie to send the change back to the Plan Commission. In each case, the council asked the commission to limit the allowed density to between five and nine units per acre.

The city attorney and League of Wisconsin Municipalities both have offered opinions that the two bodies must agree on the amendments, despite a sentence in the City of Fitchburg’s ordinances that states the council may make its own amendments.

“This language does not alter my conclusion,” wrote LWM legal counsel Claire Silverman. “Where state statutes set forth a specific procedure for enacting and amending a comprehensive plan, a municipality cannot modify the statutory procedure by including language inconsistent with that scheme within its plan.”

Ald. Dan Carpenter (Dist. 3) pointed to a different memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a body he worked with as a legislative aide, that differed.

“It’s the exact opposite of what we have been told for almost a year; that concerns me,” Carpenter said.

Regardless, there’s reason for optimism among the alders and residents who have pushed for the medium density zoning limits. Three seats on the Plan Commission have turned over since it was last considered, with two appointments still to be made and Ald. Tom Clauder (D-4) taking over the aldermanic representative seat.

Clauder, Carpenter and Ald. Dan Bahr (D-2) were the three that introduced the amendment to return the parcel to medium density zoning, and they have been its strongest advocates since. Appointments to the two remaining open seats will be made by Mayor Aaron Richardson but must receive council approval.

“I do expect the new plan commissioners will go along with this,” Bahr said. “We’re going to appoint people, they’re going to carry out the will of the people.”

That sort of wording bothered Ald. Dorothy Krause (D-1).

“I have a major concern in tying peoples’ hands, in telling people, ‘This is how we expect you to vote, this is what we expect you to do,’” she said. “I don’t think we’re supposed to do that to the Plan Commission.

“I feel like that turns into bullying at some point,” Krause added.

Krause also shared the idea that alders represent “the entire city,” not just constituents in their personal districts – adding she wasn’t commenting on “this individual decision,” but rather “an attitude that says it is the residents that get the final word on what is going to happen in the city.”

“It’s really spooky to me to say that the residents’ word is the last word and that is how we shall vote,” Krause said. “That downplays all the education, the staff and the money that we pour into paying our staff and everything else.”

That drew reactions from Carpenter and Bahr. Bahr got applause from the audience when he told Krause, “It’s their city, Dorothy.”

“We had an election, we had a debate about density in Fitchburg,” he added. “Voters responded in resounding fashion.”

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.