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Milwaukee neighborhood tries to change city zoning law

By Sean Ryan

Public policy and public opinion are going head to head over a disputed zoning law in an east side Milwaukee neighborhood.

City aldermen are in the middle of the debate, weighing property owners’ complaints against a law designed to maintain the historic integrity of the neighborhood. The city created the special zoning district for the neighborhood five years ago.

But the district requires, for example, more expensive siding and building materials that make home-renovation projects cost-prohibitive, said neighborhood resident Douglas Pietz. He said the city has a responsibility to enforce building and zoning laws but not if those laws place a heavy burden on property owners.

“If the city government establishes something, if it doesn’t work appropriately, it should be revisited or abolished or revised,” Pietz said.

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Alderman Robert Bauman was the only member of the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee on Tuesday to oppose abolishing the zoning law. He said the city is on its way to letting politics trump citywide planning. Zoning laws that force homeowners to maintain the historic appearance of their homes satisfy a broader public policy of preserving the cityís heritage, Bauman said.

“History matters,” he said. “The continuity of civilization matters.”

But Alderman Nik Kovac, who represents the east side neighborhood, and Alderman Michael Murphy argued city officials should respond to public opposition to a law.

“We listen to the people,” Murphy said. “We don’t simply ignore them because we know better.”

Pietz said he is considering re-siding his house. But the zoning law would force him to buy cement board siding that costs as much as $140 per 100 square feet, more than three times the cost of vinyl siding. He said he is buying the cement board because he prefers the material. But, he said, he is worried his neighbors will defer projects instead of paying to meet the standards beyond basic zoning regulations.

Bauman said removing the east side zoning law opens the door to challenging other city zoning protections for historic buildings. He said more expensive upfront project costs for historic renovations generate higher property values for property owners.

“That’s true of any historic district in the city,” Bauman said in response to Pietz’s concerns. “So what he’s saying is the city should not be mandating any process or material that is not the least expensive.”

Bauman said a better solution would be an amendment to remove the portions of the zoning law that are unworkable.

Kovac said he considered amending the law to sidestep conflicts with property owners’ renovation plans. But he said he dropped the idea after 73 of 100 neighbors surveyed said the law should be abolished.

With that much opposition in the neighborhood, Pietz said, the city would have trouble enforcing the law.

“I want my neighbors to have the opportunity to do affordable repairs,” he said.

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