Madison's Zoning Board of Appeals typically handles requests from homeowners who want to build a detached garage or an addition that juts into their neighborhood's required setbacks.
On Wednesday night, they were asked to grapple with the much more complicated social issue of homelessness. It was not a task they relished.
At issue was the decision by Koua Vang to let Occupy Madison temporarily set up a homeless camp on vacant property he owns in the 3600 block of Portage Road. Camping is not considered a permissible use for the land, which is located in the Clarendon Hills neighborhood, north of East Washington Avenue between the airport and I-90/94. Rather, the property is zoned for agricultural use.
In a passionate speech to the group, Vang appealed more to morality and human decency than the law in making his case.
"Every logical reason told me not to help these homeless people," he said. "Who would want to be associated with the low of the lowest human being? But it is my heart in seeing the cold, wet and suffering of these people that really bothered me. I am tough. I don't cry often. But I did cry for these sufferings."
An attorney, Vang also pointed out gaps in the city's ordinance. "In the thousands of pages of zoning laws, you will not find any words that say camping is a prohibited use." He also said that while there is a zoning regulation allowing the keeping of chickens, there are none that say keeping dogs or cats is allowed. Nevertheless, countless city residents have them.
"When the city of Madison says 'no camping anywhere' -- that's very broad prohibitive argument," he added. "You have to have a reason to say why a use is not allowed for a particular reason."
Vang clearly had the sympathies of the room on his side. Before the meeting, more than 60 people held a "flash mob" demonstration, sprawling for several minutes on the floor in the hallway outside at the City-County Building. During the meeting, dozens spoke in favor of allowing the Occupy camp to remain in place on Vang's land until mid-April.
Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center and an Occupy Madison board member, told the Board there's a severe housing demand in Madison, with a rental vacancy rate near 2% and long waiting lists for housing programs. Homeless shelters only allow people to stay a couple of months each year, and some have lifetime limits on the number of days that people can stay.
"We have laws allowing chickens and bees and you can have a shelter for animals," she said. "But you can't shelter people and that doesn't seem right to me."
Keith Valiquette, who lives at the camp, said he's been cited twice for having his dog unsheltered. "People think it's inhumane for a dog to be without shelter, but it's okay for me."
"If we're not a community, then I guess we're a bunch of laws without any flexibility or compassion," he added.
The crowd wasn't entirely pro-encampment, however. Two women spoke against allowing the camp to continue. Delores Robillard started her statement in opposition by declaring, "I'm not feeling very popular here tonight." She went on to say that Vang doesn't live in the neighborhood and that the camp will lower property values.
Ald. Joe Clausius, who represents the east side neighborhood, also spoke against allowing the camp to continue: "A campground for homeless people does not belong in the middle of residential neighborhood anywhere in Dane County."
Mike Basford, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, agonized over the decision. His day job with Housing Initiatives Inc. is to help mentally ill people find housing, and there's a long waiting list for it. He also chairs the Dane County Homeless Issues Committee, where he hears many sad stories and is frustrated by the inadequacy of local government programs.
While Basford said that Vang had made a compelling case, the Board's "charge is a rather limited one." The appeal wasn't a variance, but a change in the law, he said.
"Very sadly, I'm left with no decision but to vote 'no,'" he explained. "This isn't a failure of the zoning department, this is clearly a failure of the ordinances themselves."
But Basford got some encouraging news on that front. Ald. Marsha Rummel, who spoke in favor of allowing the camp to continue, said that she and other alders are working on an ordinance change to allow camping within the city.
"People are sleeping outside all the time in parks and alongside railroad tracks and maybe getting shuffled along once in a while by a policeman. What's the difference between that and Occupy?" she said. "Occupy is people trying to work together and help each other -- and that's what's being punished."
After the meeting, Rummel said the ordinance change is still being drafted, but noted it could involve allowing churches or other groups to allow long-term camping on their property.
Despite the Board's decision, the city won't forcibly evict Occupy Madison from Vang's property. "We cannot clear the property," said Matt Tucker, Madison's zoning administrator. "All we can do issue fines."
But he added that fines weren't the goal. "Ultimately, we're a compliance driven agency. We look for compliance, we don't look for fines. But fines are a tool we have to get compliance."
However, those fines could be steep: a first offense is $177, a second violation is $303 and a third $366. Vang could be fined $366 each subsequent day.
Vang said after the meeting he was undeterred. "I'm going to let them stay as we agreed and the fine is not a problem."
Asked if he would be paying it himself, Vang said, "It is my responsibility, but anyone who wants to help would be welcome."
He added that he is not done fighting and will appeal citations in court. "I welcome the fines because this allows me to go further" in making a case. "This is not going to end."