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Zoning code updates worry Madison officials

By Sean Ryan and Paul Snyder

Madison planners’ attempt to update city zoning without weakening requirements for historic properties has generated confusion and concern.

“This seems to be kind of a big to-do about nothing, really,” said Bill Fruhling, Madison principal planner. “I think it’s just more confusion in exactly that, what’s being proposed.”

Madison’s zoning ordinance is being rewritten. The city’s existing laws include historic preservation requirements, making any alterations to state-owned historic buildings or Madison landmarks subject to city review. But the law protecting historic buildings and landmarks is a city ordinance that is separate from the zoning law.

City staff members, as they were revising the city zoning code, recommended the two remain separate, which spurred fears that they were proposing to divorce the landmark protections from the zoning code.

But Landmarks Commission Chairman Dan Stephans said he is worried the plan will result in Madison losing its ability to regulate historic state building projects.

“If this is not in the zoning ordinance, the state can bypass Landmarks Commission review if it’s working on landmark buildings,” he said. “And they will prevail.”

Fruhling said the proposal would result in no change to the authority of the Landmarks Commission to review projects, such as those undertaken by the state.

Ledell Zellers, a resident of the Mansion Hill Historic District, said he shares Stephans’ concern that the idea would weaken the protection for Madison’s historic districts.

“If we’re talking about building alterations, additions or demolition, we want to have the same rules apply to any property in the city,” she said. “If that goes, the city would have certain land-use goals that could be ignored by the state, and it could mean projects counter to what the city’s plan is for an area.”

Wisconsin law mandates the state comply with local zoning ordinances when building new projects. But the state does not have to comply with local building codes. In most cities, Stephans said, building codes can be separated from zoning because zoning is typically defined strictly as land use.

Fruhling said there’s a chance that, if the city’s landmarks law is incorporated into the zoning code, the Landmarks Commission may lose its authority to review projects. There is a concern among city attorneys, he said, that the switch would instead give that authority to the Madison Zoning Board of Appeals.

“There may be some unintended consequences of having some of those other ordinances become party of the zoning rules,” he said.

The Landmarks Commission is to discuss the possible zoning change at its Monday meeting. Fruhling said planners and city attorneys will pull together a more detailed description of what they are proposing.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that it’s not really a change from the way it is now.”

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