By Dianne Yost and
Tia Lynn Ivey
Madison’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) announced its opposition to the proposed text amendments to change the City’s Zoning Ordinance for Planned Residential Developments (PDRs) after considering several complaint letters written to Madison Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) that argued the HPC would lose its role in the platting and subdivision of land if the amendment request is adopted. The proposed text amendments are a precursor necessary for the controversial Foster Street project to return for consideration by the PZC and later, the Madison Mayor and City Council.
HPC Chairman Steve Schaefer believes the proposed amendment will diminish the HPC’s rightful input during the rezoning process. He read a prepared statement after more than an hour-long executive session of the HPC last Friday.
“After input from legal counsel, it is my opinion that the HPC has the authority to review Planned Residential Developments as stated in the Planning & Zoning Ordinance,” read Schaefer. “After input from legal counsel, it is my opinion we now understand the extent of our authority for reviewing platting of property and that we have this authority. Our next step is to work with staff to submit suggestions to clarify procedures and then develop additional guidelines for reviewing plats and related issues with public input. After input from legal counsel, it is my opinion the proposed amendments do not provide this needed clarity.”
The zoning request comes from an Atlanta law firm, Smith Gambrell & Russell (SGR), which represents developers Brad and Edward Good, whose plans for a subdivision to be built on Foster Street in the Historic District were thwarted by a previously unenforced mandate in the city’s current zoning ordinance. The developers were seeking to rezone the 12-plus acre property that features the historic Foster-Thomason-Miller house on Main Street to facilitate the development of a brand new 37-house residential subdivision with an entryway on Foster Street. The project has been fiercely opposed by residents in the Historic District who fear the development will be “too dense” for the area, and cause traffic congestion, parking problems, noise, and could decrease property values in the Historic District. Legal counsel for the opposition to the discovered the mandate, which requires rezoning applicants to acquire a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or support letter from the HPC (or appropriate design review board) before the planning and zoning board can consider the request. The developers could not move forward with their application due this technicality in the city’s zoning ordinance, even though, according to City Planner Monica Callahan, the city had not enforced this requirement for at least 15 years. Callahan explained that the city has always asked applicants to go to the design review board first to acquire a conceptual review, then to head over to the planning and zoning board for zoning approval, before finally going back to the design review body for a final review and approval for a COA. This was the process that Wal-Mart, First United Methodist Church of Madison, Silver Lakes, and Candler Street project.
But when lawyers for the opposition to the Foster Street Project pointed out the language of the zoning ordinance, the city’s hands were tied. The ordinance was upheld, which prevented Good’s proposal from ever reaching the zoning board for review since there was no COA included.
Now, the proposed text amendments essentially request that the Zoning Ordinance be changed in order to reflect the process the city had adopted in practice for years.
But the opposition is challenging this zoning request, arguing the HPC will lose its authority, which would be to the detriment of Madison’s Historic District.
Charles Door, a lawyer representing historic district property owners, Dean and Theresa Bishop and Penny Foote, wrote a four-page letter to the PZC criticizing the proposed amendments.
“My clients and I firmly believe that the role of the Madison HPC is critical to preserving and protecting the value, character and integrity of our city’s beautiful and unique Historic District,” wrote Dorr. Dorr argued that if the new text amendments are adopted, it would “limit the HPC’s input prior to the rezoning of property within the Historic District, eliminate issuance of a COA or HPC letter of support as a precondition to rezoning and establish a 25-foot set-back along common property lines, in all instances, between any PRD in the Historic District and neighboring properties. “The proposed text amendment is a poorly disguised and improper attempt to accomplish by text amendment what SGR’s former client…was unable to accomplish through its failed rezoning application for the Foster Street Project,” wrote Dorr. “The text amendment is tailor-made to pave the way for the highly unpopular development plan submitted last spring. The text amendment has all the characteristics of a carefully calculated ‘divide and conquer’ strategy designed to disassociate the HPC and PZC and disable the HPC. The text amendment, like the Foster Street Development plan, is a bad idea for the Historic District and a bad idea for the City as a whole.”
Two more complaint letters to the PZC, written by Celia and Walter Murray, property owners in the Historic District, contended that the proposed text amendments are nothing more than a way to “sneak through the backdoor what [the developer] was barred from bringing through the front door.” The Murrays went on to argue that passage of this text amendment would be a detriment to the entire Historic District and effectively “neuter”
According to City Attorney Joe Reitman, there have been multiple threats of lawsuits both in writing and verbally concerning the Foster Street Development and text amendments although he would not specifically identify parties.
The Madison PZC will review the text amendment requests from SGR this Thursday, Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the Madison City Meeting Hall located at 160 North Main Street, Suite 400. The PZC can make a recommendation to the City Council to approve or deny the request, or the PZC can pass it on to the council with no recommendation at all.