Madison Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway says there are two ways of looking at Madison's new zoning code, now in its second and final phase of drafting.
The first is as a nuts-and-bolts updating of the city's rules for what can be done on various parcels of property.
"We spent a lot of time talking about things like parking, housing co-ops, and accessory dwelling units," says Rhodes-Conway, a member of the committee overseeing the zoning rewrite. "I don't know if they're the most significant things, but they're changes that were of high interest."
The zoning code, she adds, is also undergoing a philosophical shift. It attempts to shape not just what buildings are used for, but also what they look like and how they relate to the areas around them.
"Our new code regulates uses, obviously, things that are allowed in districts, but it also has some aspects that are concerned with what the form of a building is on a lot," says Rhodes-Conway. "It's more of a design approach, saying this is what we want the city to look like and we're less concerned with what the use is."
Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator, says the old code was generally good, but failed to encourage the kinds of development residents want to see. The new code is more concerned with "how a building looks, how it relates to the street and the buildings around it. It's as sensitive to pedestrians as it would be to the automobile."
In March, the Common Council approved the 250-page zoning code, creating definitions for all of the city's zones. Now the city has begun the task of deciding where to apply each zone in the city, drawing a new map.
Madison's first zoning code was created in 1922 and has been rewritten only twice, in 1945 and in 1966.
The city has always used traditional zoning codes, known as Euclidean (after the city of Euclid, Ohio), which regulate properties based on what they're used for: residential, commercial, manufacturing, and so on.
A newer type of zoning, known as "form-based," regulates construction based on the size and shape of the building and its relationship to its surroundings.
The new Madison zoning code is a hybrid of these two philosophies. Tucker says the new code is geared to encourage higher density, multiple uses, better-looking design and more efficient land use.
Tucker gives an example of how form-based codes are used in the new code in a residential neighborhood. While in contemporary neighborhoods an attached garage might dominate the faade of the home, the new code requires that the garage be set back from the front of the house, and be no more than 50% of the width (except for lakefront property).
Rhodes-Conway says even these philosophy-based changes are "pretty wonky" and unlikely to be all that interesting, or even understandable, to the average citizen: "I don't think anybody will say, 'Oh gosh, this city must have a partially form-based zoning code.'"
But what people may notice - and appreciate - are some of the small tweaks to the code. These include:
- Accessory-dwelling units. There's been a push to allow "granny apartments" in Madison - that is, smaller living units in a backyard or above a garage that can be used as a rental property or to house an extended family member. The Common Council agreed to allow these units anywhere in the city, through a conditional-use approval that property owners could get from the Plan Commission.
The new units can't be bigger than houses in the neighborhood or right against the property line. Another restriction is economic. "They're expensive and could be controversial," reflects Tucker. "We're not going to see a flood of them being built."
The new code will also allow home-based businesses in detached garages and accessory buildings, provided the applicant gets a conditional-use approval. These had previously been prohibited.
- Housing co-ops. The part of the code revision that has received the most attention concerns where housing co-ops - houses owned cooperatively by a group of unrelated people living inside - can be located.
Tucker says the city has about 109,000 dwelling units and fewer than 50 housing co-ops. But the new code may allow them in many more neighborhoods, and make it easier to convert three-flat houses or duplexes to a co-op.
- Parking. The city is taking the radical step of eliminating the minimum parking requirement for most areas. Tucker says that's because most housing developers were not meeting these standards anyway and had a better idea of their parking needs than city officials: "Nearly all of the projects we were seeing were coming in under the minimum requirement and needing an exception right from the get-go."
The new codes also simplify the appeals process for those who wish to go over the maximum parking limit or under the minimums (where these still exist). If it's a matter of just a few spaces, planning staff can approve. For greater variances, Plan Commission approval will be needed.
- Limiting PUDs. When a development doesn't fit neatly into any available zone, the developer has the option of going through a process known as a planned unit development rezoning, or PUD. It requires public hearings and intensive administrative oversight.
Tucker says the process has been used too much in recent years, so the city has tried to craft zoning districts that reflect the types of developments being approved as PUDs, while "raising the bar" for when it's necessary to seek PUDs.
"Let's save the PUDs for the truly exceptional project," Tucker says. "Right now, we have whole neighborhoods that are PUD."
- Urban Agriculture. City planners created a new zone for farming in urban areas.
The zone would allow gardens within the city that produce food for sale, as well as greenhouses, indoor farming, fish farming and other uses. While Tucker says the city doesn't yet have any developments that would fit into this zone, he expects it will soon: "This movement is just taking off."
Now that the new zoning code has passed, city planners are beginning the trickier part: drawing maps that show what zoning is available in which parts of town. Tucker expects to have drafts late this summer, with final council approval coming late this year or early next year. A website is in the works so residents can enter their address and learn if and how their zoning has changed.
Tucker says mapping for 75% to 90% of the city should be easy and uncontroversial. For the rest of the city, planners must decide whether to map for "what's on the ground" or for "how you want to encourage change."
The process has been relatively quiet so far.
"People will pay attention more once they can see a map and understand how it impacts a neighborhood," Rhodes-Conway says. "It's still fairly arcane stuff. What people need to do is not only look at the map and see what districts are proposed; they need to then also go look at the text and see what uses are allowed in those districts, and what the regulations are around that."