Zoning Code and Downtown Plan 101

As a consultant with Solaris Management and the director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, Carole Schaeffer speaks what's on many area developers' minds. She has her eye on the planning, zoning, and process issues that impact development. In "Developing Inroads," we'll get a better idea of the roadblocks and inroads developers have when building in Dane County.

The Madison Zoning Code rewrite and the imminent release of the Downtown Plan recently made their way into the news again. There seems to be some confusion between the two, and I get a lot of questions from people who don’t realize that the Zoning Code Rewrite and the Downtown Plan are two separate, albeit intrinsically linked, things that are running concurrently. Don’t feel bad – if you aren’t knee-deep in it every day, it is confusing. Actually, even if you are, it’s still confusing.

Before I write a blog about the good, bad, or ugly of codes and plans, I’ll try to outline what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is going on process-wise. In my next edition, I will get into some of the reasons why you should care and what you can do about it, and give a quiz on the process. Maybe we can get winners an extra floor on your next project or a “get out of going to the Urban Design Commission free” card.

The Zoning Code rewrite

You’ve probably heard that the city of Madison hasn’t overhauled the whole Zoning Code kit and caboodle since 1966. That was a long time ago. Like Paul-Soglin-hadn’t-been-mayor-yet long time ago. So the city decided it was about that time. Three years ago, a Zoning Code Rewrite Advisory Committee (the infamous “ZCRAC”) was formed to work with zoning code consultants to make initial recommendations to the Plan Commission. The first go-around included ONLY the text, or language, of the code. It did not include maps of the various districts. Those are being worked on right now by city staff and reviewed by ZCRAC. The draft of the text also left out the downtown districts – until the completion of the Downtown Plan. We will get back to that piece.

For three long years, the Plan Commission and more committees than you can shake a stick at worked on the Zoning Code text. As a ZCRACer, I can tell you there was a lot of discussion, most of which would cause the eyes of the average person to glaze over within 30 seconds. Setbacks and side yards are not the sexiest topics. However, every single parcel of land in Madison is included in the Zoning Code rewrite – so you may want to take a look at it and say, “Whew, that works” or “OMG, my neighbor can have how many chickens?”

What’s left of the work on the Zoning Code is the mapping, all things downtown-related, and any subsequent language tweaks the Common Council wants to include. These “everything but the downtown districts” maps are heading to the Plan Commission and the alphabet soup of committees this fall. The downtown districts text will be going to the Plan Commission this winter, contingent on the completion of the Downtown Plan – which is what city staff will use to draft the text and maps of the downtown districts. The Common Council should have the entire Zoning Code draft on their desks by the middle of next year. In theory. But only if we finish the pesky Downtown Plan.

Downtown Plan

Once upon a time, Wisconsin passed a Smart Growth Law requiring municipalities to adopt comprehensive plans. Madison complied with this comprehensive plan law, but for the downtown it created a sort of placeholder plan to be revisited as part of a Downtown Plan process. So, this “Downtown Plan” is actually the last piece of the Comprehensive Plan, and will be the basis for the downtown districts in the Zoning Code. Whereas zoning and planning are two different animals, state law requires that the underlying zoning not be in conflict with adopted comprehensive plans. In cart-and-horse language, plan comes first, then comes the zone.

Beginning in 2008, the city held numerous listening sessions, Downtown Madison Inc. convened economic development subcommittees of real estate professionals and design professionals to get practitioner input, and neighborhood groups met to discuss how their plans fit into the future. The Downtown Plan was originally slated to take a year to complete. So in typical Madison fashion, in September 2010, an initial draft was presented for community discussion. After further review, a new council and mayor, and incredibly hard work by plan department staff, the city will unveil the formal draft for public discussion in November. The draft then goes to appropriate committees and commissions, and there is fervent hoping and (not in a public building) praying that we will have a Downtown Plan for Madison by February. Of 2012. Then, the downtown districts of the Zoning Code can be drafted and vetted and eventually we will have a shiny new Zoning Code.

If you’d like to come to a Zoning Code meeting, the next one is Monday, Nov. 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the Madison Senior Center. If you’d like to make it more interesting, I can present you with a Zoning Code Bingo game sheet. I am also pretty sure that Vegas has a line on when the code will actually be adopted, when the first project will come through that doesn’t work with the new code, when the first outraged person who didn’t pay attention finds out his or her land is now zoned as a petting zoo, and how many historic preservationists will declare the first project that does work with the code an abomination.

More information on both the Zoning Code Rewrite and Downtown Plan are available on the city of Madison website.

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