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Madison City Council narrowly adopts zoning changes aimed at boosting housing stock
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Madison City Council narrowly adopts zoning changes aimed at boosting housing stock

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After a lengthy and dense debate, the Madison City Council narrowly adopted late Tuesday a slate of zoning changes intended to boost the city's supply of much-needed, multi-family housing — a move some worry could stymie neighborhood input and doesn't tackle the city's lack of low-cost housing.

The council voted 11-9 to approve zoning changes meant to streamline the development of small- and medium-scale housing options in certain zoning districts by making the approval process easier. Backers said the changes are needed to fill the existing and future needs of an already tight housing market.

"We have a very serious supply problem here," said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who sponsored the changes with several council members. "We are not building enough to deal with the problem we already have much less to keep up with population growth."

But opponents on the council viewed the changes as lackluster, feared they catered more toward developers, and criticized a new approval process that could lessen resident feedback.

Ald. Grant Foster, 15th District, said the council is united in developing low-cost housing and preventing gentrification, but he argued to delay any zoning changes until an entire "package and strategy" on housing can be put together.

"Pushing this forward right now on its own is not going to do that," Foster said. "The best thing it can possibility do is just move money in the wrong direction."

Rhodes-Conway and others countered the zoning changes were specifically designed to grow the housing stock, and the city has been using and continues to pursue different strategies to improve affordability and prevent gentrification, such as land-banking and the Affordable Housing Fund.

Foster argued the messaging from the supporters of the zoning changes focused on affordability and equity when the proposal was initially rolled out in February.

"This has been a marketing and a persuasion campaign on us and on city residents," he said.

Zoning changes

Ultimately, the changes will make some small- and medium-scale, multi-family housing developments a "permitted use" in certain zoning districts rather than a "conditional use."

A development that is a permitted use — also referred to as "by right" — can be approved by city staff if standards are found met, whereas conditional use projects need approval from the Plan Commission. That process can be a more costly, time-consuming affair, but it's also when neighbors can publicly weigh in on proposals.

The changes won't affect large-scale housing projects, rezoning or subdivision proposals, or developments that affect Landmarks or Urban Design commissions.

City Planning Division director Heather Stouder said the main objective of the changes is to increase Madison's housing supply by increasing the "allowable densities," or units per acre, in certain zoning districts. The impact of the changes would be relatively modest, she said.

Since 2016, about 390 of the approximately 10,800 housing units built in Madison would have been permitted uses under the new zoning changes, Stouder said.

Several other land uses, such as commercial, office and single-family, are often considered permitted uses under the city's zoning laws, Stouder said, but multi-family housing "almost always" requires Plan Commission oversight.

Views on changes

Backers of the zoning changes argued they could make it easier for smaller developers to move forward so-called "missing middle" projects, which are smaller multi-family housing options like townhouses, triplexes and 12-unit apartment buildings.

Bill Connors, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, said the zoning changes by themselves would do nothing to grow the city's low-cost housing stock. But by building the overall stock, it could help keep rental rates in check, he said.

Several neighborhood associations opposed the changes, which they viewed as stripping away away critical neighborhood input that improves projects by allowing city staff to approve projects unilaterally. While it's not required, Stouder said it's been a tradition in the city for developers to hold neighborhood meetings before seeking a conditional use approval.

"This city works the best — and it has over the years — with public input from the grassroots level," said David Bierman.

Others expressed concerns the changes could incentivize developers to buy up existing low-cost housing, consolidate properties and replace them with more expensive apartments.

A failed amendment by council President Syed Abbas, 12th District, would have exempted a broad area around Truax Field from the streamlined development process. Abbas said it would be a "disservice" to make it easier for developers to build more housing in an area that will be most affected by the noise of F-35 fighter jets planned to begin arriving in Madison in 2023.

Abbas proposed continuing to require conditional use approvals for multi-family housing proposals in a swath of the East and North sides around the Truax Field, rather than move to the easier permitted use process. The amendment, which would have required entering hundreds of individual addresses into city ordinances to exempt them from the new zoning changes, failed on an 11-9 vote.

Assistant city attorney John Strange said it might be cleaner for Abbas to put forward a separate zoning "overlay district" to exempt the area — a suggestion two opponents to his amendment said they could support in the future.


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