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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Wanted: More granny units around Madison
City is asked to relax rules of accessory dwellings
Example of an accessory dwelling unit in Madison.
Example of an accessory dwelling unit in Madison.
Credit:John Linck

About 10 years ago, two of John Michael Linck's elderly neighbors sold their homes near West High and moved into condos. But the women soon regretted their decision.

"They said, 'We're really sorry. [The condos] are kind of sterile, there's no children around, it's not a neighborhood,'" Linck says.

This got Linck thinking about his own retirement. He doesn't want to leave the neighborhood, but realizes that at some point maintaining a home might be too much.

A woodworker by trade, Linck found what he thought was the perfect solution: accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Most people call them "mother-in-law," "granny," "garage" or "basement" apartments. They're extra housing units that can be part of a main building or a separate structure. Linck even set up a website:

Such units are currently verboten in the city's low-density, single-family neighborhoods. But as Madison rewrites its zoning codes, Linck and a few other residents are pushing the city to allow them.

"I see a few ADUs on each block as a way to enhance it," Linck says. "The city could take a little more in taxes. The city wouldn't pay any more in services because the services are already here. It does increase the density."

The city's Zoning Code Rewrite Advisory Committee has proposed allowing ADUs by letting residents form "overlay districts" of at least eight contiguous blocks. The residents of each district would have chances to weigh in, although the city would have the final say.

Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator, says the districts are needed because ADUs can change a neighborhood's character: "Putting a 25-foot structure three feet from your backyard has some consequences."

Each overlay district could be vastly different in terms of what kinds of ADUs are allowed. "It would leave it up to the neighborhood to decide what is appropriate," Tucker says.

But Linck is perturbed. "It feels like they're putting a lot of barriers in place, which will make it impossible to build one of these things," he says. "Nine out of 10 neighbors may be in favor of this, but if one isn't, it doesn't sound like it's going to happen."

Tucker says that's how democracy works. "Could one neighbor who is against it upset the apple cart? Of course. But that can happen with any zoning changes."

Sellers offer alternatives to expanded booze ban

When the Madison Common Council proposed expanding its ban on the sale of small containers of alcohol, liquor industry representatives raised holy hell.

Currently, the city does not allow the sale of fortified wine, beer in quantities of less than a six-pack or liquor in amounts of 200 milliliters or less in the downtown area. Ald. Michael Schumacher proposed making it citywide, to curtail problem drinkers who panhandle and cause trouble.

Industry lawyers, distributors and retailers complained at the council's May 5 meeting that the proposal punished everyone because of the sins of a few. Schumacher agreed to table the proposal for more discussion, but warned industry reps he had the votes to pass it, so they'd better work cooperatively.

It worked. Schumacher is thrilled with proposals that have come from meetings with industry reps. This week, he tabled the proposal for another six months. "The most critical piece is that the industry has made a commitment," he says.

Most significantly, the industry supports - and has agreed to fund - an educational officer to consult with and train retailers about problem drinkers. Schumacher sees the person training employees at stores and helping develop a list of repeat offenders. They could potentially work with the drinkers themselves, referring them to services.

Bill White, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Grocers Association, pledges industry support: "I'm pretty confident we'll have a solution that is targeted to meet the problem."

Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents an area where the sales bans are already in place, would consider looser rules in his district if the industry proposals work. "I'm not hugely optimistic that the industry ideas will make the problem go away," he says, "but if that's the case, it'd be fantastic."

'Too many cooks'

The state Legislature had a pretty simple task: make sure nonprofit groups that provide housing for low-income people remain exempt from property taxes. New court rulings have called this exemption into question in Madison and elsewhere.

But leave it to the politicians to screw it up. The state's Joint Finance Committee worked through the night last Thursday, drafting an amendment to the state budget that would supposedly fix things. Afterward, a few people were groaning at new loopholes the Legislature might have created.

"It's all been a very frustrating process," says Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison), who has pushed the Legislature to act. "Too many cooks in the kitchen. And the people who know the issue best were not part of the end negotiations."

The amendments the committee drafted - which will probably be voted on next week - do seem to solve the problem for most nonprofit housing agencies. "For the most part, it's really good," says Timothy Radelet, an attorney who has been representing some providers. "It's just not perfect. I want perfect."

One potential problem is that agencies overseeing more than 30 acres (up from 10) would lose their exemptions. This might not seem like a big deal, but Radelet notes that nonprofits are under pressure to consolidate and be more efficient. Developments that aim for a mix of low-income and market-rate units would also be subject to taxes, he says. And nonprofits that form to rent office space to other nonprofits (a common practice) will now face taxation.

Meanwhile, the proposed amendment creates a new exemption for "retirement homes for the aged," possibly including high-end senior housing.

"We're nervous about how huge a loophole this is," says Curt Witynski, assistant director with League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Losing the ability to tax wealthy retirement homes would further erode the tax base for municipalities, especially as the population continues to age and the demand for high-end retirement property grows.

"If more property is taken off the tax rolls," says Witynski, "only the single-family taxpayer will be paying for services and no one else. It's just not possible to keep operating that way."

Park just under that log cabin

The Madison Children's Museum has an unusual vision for its future home at East Dayton and North Hamilton streets. It wants to put a log cabin above a parking garage at the corner.

The cabin, built by the Faistel family around 1840 in Walworth County, was donated with help from the Nature Conservancy.

"This is one of those things where a whole bunch of circumstances conspired, and we realized it would be silly not to build a log cabin on that corner of the property," says John Robinson, the museum's senior exhibit developer.

If the city approves, the cabin should be reassembled late this summer. It'll be decorated and furnished based on research from third-grade classes in the Madison school district.

Robinson can hardly wait: "I've come to love the juxtaposition of this very old cabin in this modern urban setting."

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