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Editorial: A difficult day in the neighborhood

Among developers, Madison has a reputation of being a difficult city with which to work.

The problem starts with Fred (we’ll call him Fred) from the red house at the end of the block. He knows enough about development to speak the language but lacks real experience. Also, he likes his Madison neighborhood a lot.

For those two reasons, Fred will lead his neighborhood association’s committee to create a long-term development plan. His effort will be sincere as he draws up a vision for the neighborhood and guidelines for those who choose to build there.

The final plan will reflect the knowledge of those who wrote it, that is to say, it will share the values and spirit of the neighborhood but lack the finer details and overall scope of, say, a city zoning code.

At some point, if they were not involved from the outset, city planners will refine this plan, whipping it into shape, because the Common Council will adopt it as an advisory document for rulings on proposed developments in the neighborhood. Madison has more than three dozen such neighborhood plans.

The problem starts with Fred, but it is not his fault. The city encourages these plans yet relegates them to advisory roles rather than adopting them as mandatory standards.

In so doing, the city pits potential developers against a semi-informed, yet ardently protective, public. These people have a plan for their neighborhood, after all, and they intend to see it followed.

But the standards in the plans can exceed the enforceable city development laws, leaving the neighborhood and developer debating or, at best, negotiating a gray area in which one side lacks the authority of enforcement, and the other lacks any official touchstones on which to base project alterations. The city, meanwhile, takes its place on the fence as mediator.

Madison can solve this problem, but, so far, it chooses not to. Last week, the city launched a new Web site designed to walk developers through the project approval process. That’s not a solution. It’s an explanation of the problem.

Madison should incorporate neighborhood plans into the city’s rewrite of its outdated zoning codes. It is the only true solution, because it commits city leaders to matching the sincerity with which neighborhood plans are created.

If the voice of the people warrants inclusion in the process of approving developments, then make that voice law.

A responsible Common Council challenges neighborhoods to update and improve their plans. It commits city staff members to guide every plan and negotiate the finer points with neighborhood leaders. It sets deadlines and then adopts these plans, not as advisory documents, but as the official, enforceable guidelines for neighborhood growth.

Developers might not always like the results, but they will appreciate the clarity. And Fred, instead of putting together a wishful-thinking document, will know his work carries weight commensurate with his effort.

One Madison developer (we’ll call him Erik), after earning Plan Commission approval after years of project alterations and debate over a neighborhood plan, said he sees little reason for anyone to enter such an exhaustive process.

If developers start listening to Erik, a crummy reputation will be only the start of Madison’s development problems.

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