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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Fair
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Fitchburg uses interim zoning power to block man's plans
Allen: 'We need more intense use to make the rail stop viable.'
Allen: 'We need more intense use to make the rail stop viable.'

Rod Bruner has been trying to sell a five-acre parcel of land in the town of Madison for years. Now, he's finally found a buyer - and just in time. Bruner, who lives in a nursing home, is in ill health, and wants to leave something for his family.

But the city of Fitchburg, which has an annexation agreement with the town of Madison, is trying to stop Bruner's deal.

"They're giving me a bad time," says Bruner. "They want to build a railroad station there, with high-rise condos. They really have no right whatsoever to do it."

Bruner's land is in the Southdale neighborhood, which is bordered by Ski Lane, Rimrock Road and the Beltline. The city of Fitchburg, which will annex the land in 2022, has developed a neighborhood plan for the area that calls for higher-density, mixed use and a rail line.

"The reason we want a neighborhood plan is because there are some major problems there," explains Fitchburg Ald. Jay Allen. "It's a low-income neighborhood, and there are issues that have developed."

The neighborhood is isolated by the Beltline, lacks public transportation and has a rising crime rate. "The town of Madison does not have the infrastructure or the resources to handle the issues," says Allen. "It's only going to continue to deteriorate."

Fitchburg's neighborhood plan requires buildings be at least three stories, with ground-floor retail and underground parking. Bruner's proposed deal - to Kelly-Moss Motorsports for a one-story building and a large parking lot - does not mesh with it.

"Should we be putting in buildings that are not part of this plan and are just going to have to be replaced?" asks Allen.

Fitchburg also plans to eventually use Bruner's land for a commuter rail stop. "We need more intense use to make the rail stop viable," says Allen. "We have to make sure we're not building junk."

Under the annexation agreement, Fitchburg has the right to establish interim zoning in Southdale, effectively stopping development there. The city has passed an ordinance to do so, which bars land-use and zoning changes.

Bruner's attorney, Mark Hazelbaker, believes the city is not allowed to ban both kinds of changes: "They can't do that under the law."

Rick Rose, public works director for the town of Madison, says Bruner's proposed use for the site meets the town's current zoning regulations. But he also says Fitchburg is within its rights.

"We agreed to do a Southdale neighborhood plan. We can't really fight it." Bruner, he says, "kind of got caught between a rock and a hard place."

Hazelbaker hopes to persuade Fitchburg to let the development go forward, especially since it will be 14 years before the land is annexed and likely even longer before a rail line goes in. "We're talking about a very, very long timeline for Jay [Allen]'s vision to come about," he says. "We think it's unfortunate to keep the land vacant until then."

Train to Fitchburg?

Ald. Allen says Fitchburg has long planned a commuter rail line that would run from the city of Madison to "Green Tech Village," a sustainable, mixed-use development Fitchburg wants to build on its east side.

"This is going to be a transit-oriented development," he promises.

The rail line could become part of Dane County's proposed commuter rail system. Or Fitchburg might contract with Madison Metro to run it.

Allen hopes to pay for the line with a Regional Transit Authority - if the state Legislature allows one and if county residents approve a referendum creating it. An RTA would have its own taxing ability.

If the RTA fails, then Fitchburg will look at creating a tax-increment financing district to help pay for it. "Some of it will be paid for by riders," says Allen.

The city already owns the rail lines, and Allen envisions commuter rail eventually going from Fitchburg to Oregon or Brooklyn. Fitchburg got a state grant to upgrade the tracks and plans a feasibility study next year. Says Allen, "We're rolling."

Screening for abuse

Hannah Rosenthal, the former head of the Chicago Foundation for Women, has landed a new job at WPS Health Insurance, a not-for-profit insurer.

"The first thing I did here is say, we've got to focus on violence against women as a health issue," says Rosenthal. "So much of domestic violence has been viewed as a law-enforcement issue."

At Rosenthal's urging, WPS joined the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other organizations to form a new group pushing for routine health care screening for domestic violence. The group wants health care professionals to regularly ask patients about abuse.

"When I go to the doctor they ask me if I smoke. They say, 'Hannah, you're too fat, you've gotta lose weight,'" says Rosenthal. "They've never asked me, 'Hannah do you feel safe at home?'"

The coalition has printed up laminated cards with questions doctors can ask patients, such as, "Are you afraid to go home?" The cards also have information about referrals and advice on how to document findings of abuse.

"There's a ruler on one side to measure wounds," says Rosenthal. "If physicians do this, it will have a huge impact. It will save lives."

Yanked from the grill

WYOU has been spared. This year.

After Mayor Dave Cieslewicz met with WYOU's board recently, he dropped his proposal to eliminate all funding for the public access channel in the city's 2009 budget ("Mayor Dave Takes Aim at WYOU," 9/26/08).

"The board was very helpful, and we were able to work out a compromise," says Rachel Strauch-Nelson, the mayor's spokeswoman.

Cieslewicz will not take away $140,000 in PEG fees - which are paid monthly by cable subscribers - and give it all to Madison's City Channel, as he'd planned. Instead, WYOU will keep the money in 2009, but the mayor will cut it in half in 2010. In 2011, under a new state law, all PEG fees will end completely.

Meantime, WYOU is seeking a new executive director, after the departure earlier this year of Charles Uphoff. The main job requirement: Must be good at fund-raising.

Plan till you drop

The city of Madison has opened a storefront office where people can stop by and talk to city planners about a new Downtown Plan.

"If you can't make the public meetings or don't want to make an appointment with city staff, you can stop by for a few minutes," says Bill Fruhling, a city principal planner. "We're trying to create as many opportunities as possible for people to participate."

Fruhling says the city did something similar when it redesigned State Street. "That was such a popular idea. It worked so well."

The office, at 125 W. Mifflin St., costs the city about $1,000 a month. It's open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Residents can study the past Downtown Plan and offer their own ideas for how it should be updated.

Some public meetings were held this summer. "We didn't hear anything too wild and crazy," says Fruhling, noting most people simply wanted improved access to the lakes. "Right now it's pretty limited."

The city is considering ways to enhance the lakefront, including creating a bike pathway along the shore. It will hold another round of public meetings in November.

"There hasn't been a comprehensive plan done since 1989," he says. "There really is a need for an overarching framework."

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