The City of Fitchburg expects to complete its Comprehensive Plan update by the spring election.
The plan, which outlines future development plans throughout the city, must receive an update every 10 years, according to state statutes. The Common Council approved the timeline for that update July 23 on a 4 to 3 vote, with the council at seven members until it appoints someone to the open seat in District 3.
The last approval came in 2009 following more than six years of work. That plan outlined development expectations for the next 50 years, something the four alders who supported the March deadline July 23 pointed to as a reason to keep a tighter timeline.
A draft of the plan is expected by January 2020 for discussion at Plan Commission, with a draft going to the Common Council later that month. A formal public hearing at the commission would be scheduled in February 2020 under the timeline, with another public hearing in front of the council in March or April.
Other anticipated public input opportunities include a survey, focus groups and a potential open house. Members of the public who spoke during public comment periods on the plan timeline asked for a longer horizon and more opportunities for input.
While the timeline would make the plan complete by the April election, it could complicate a pair of projects that have been brought up over the past two weeks: an Edgewood College athletic and outdoor learning complex along Lacy Road and an Oregon School District middle school planned for just north of the Village of Oregon limits.
Neither of the pieces of land for those is in the comprehensive plan for development, meaning it would require an amendment, either now or during the yearly amendment process, if that allowed for such substantial changes.
Alds. Dorothy Krause (D-1), Anne Scott (D-1) and Julia Arata-Fratta (D-2) were the three votes against the timeline. Krause had proposed an amendment to extend the deadline to the end of July, which only received support from the same three alders. Arata-Fratta said she was concerned about the timeline before hearing about the Edgewood project, and did not want the city to “miss a lot of opportunity.”
“We don’t even know because we are not discussing in depth about what is the vision we want for the city,” she said. “We are doing a refresh if we approve tonight this short time frame. It’s not close to revision.”
Krause, who said “there’s been a lot of change” since the last plan was approved, said she saw the timeline as too political.
“(Dan Bahr) and others want to get it done before there might be other people sitting in the seats,” she said. “Because they want to do it the way they want to do it. I hate that this has become a political discussion.”
Bahr agreed he wanted it done before the election, and said that was something he believes his constituents want.
“They want efficient government .. .they do not want a circus, they want things done orderly and properly and effectively,” he said.
Edgewood College vice president for business and finance Michael Guns told alders July 23 that city staff had told them a change on the land they’re looking at could only be done during the 10-year rewrite, as it would be considered a “major” change – not covered by the annual amendment process.
“What we’re concerned about is, if we’re not in this cycle, that we’ll be forced out 10 years,” Guns said, adding that they could be shovel-ready as soon as spring 2021.
That timeline was unrealistic to city staff and some alders, given the other requirements before the plan could be amended, including a neighborhood plan and approval to extend sewer and water service to the property by a regional planning body.
Planner Sonja Kruessel told the council that they could consider adding the properties, which are across the street from land already in the urban service area, but it would seemingly go against “the best way to plan.”
“It’s also worth noting that typically planning in a future Urban Development Area is not for a specific project,” she said. “If you want to add new areas, what’s changed (from the last plan)? How is this objective methodology any different?”
The OSD project includes land purchased through a successful referendum last fall, and the district has indicated it will need to build the new middle school within a decade. A representative for the district, attorney Matthew Fleming, told the Plan Commission July 16 during its discussion of the timeline that it would need to be approved for the sewer and water service before it could go to a referendum for the actual building.
“All of these things create kind of a long time horizon regardless,” Fleming said. “We need to get everything going now in order to get ready for accommodating that population.”
The Edgewood complex could also help solve a water problem in the area, as it would maintain a wetland on the property for study by its students, Guns said. The four alders who voted in favor of the March deadline all said they were interested in the project, but weren’t sure how long the delay would be and did not want to wait for a single project.
“It’s a long term conversation that’s gonna have to go on,” Ald. Dan Bahr (Dist. 2) said. “I don’t think we can just change or extend or revamp our timeline every time something comes forward.”
“I think we can accommodate Edgewood,” he added.
That accommodation could come in a language change in the plan to allow for more significant amendments between the 10 year updates, which Kruessel said they could “discuss the pros and cons of” over the next few months.