By Tia Lynn Ivey
The months-long controversy has finally been settled—for now. Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) will no longer be an option within the residential zone of the Historic District. After a nearly three-and-half hour debate, a seemingly confused Madison City Council passed two conflicting zoning amendments, which ultimately eliminated PRDs as a “flexible zoning tool” within the residential Historic District.
At Monday’s regular meeting, the Madison Mayor and City Council spent more than two hours debating how to manage the approval process specifically for PRDs in the Historic District, which culminated in a 3-to-2 vote mandating a “two-tiered” approval process that requires developers to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) twice during a PRD application process. Councilwoman Chris Hodges strongly advocated for this method throughout the meeting as a way to keep PRDs but to impose “high standards” for developers and to strengthen the Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) role in order to ease the public’s concerns. Hodges and Councilmen Rick Blanton and Bobby Crawford voted for the two-tiered COA approval process for PRDs, while Council members Carrie Peters Reid and Joe DiLetto voted against it. While that motion passed, it has now been rendered moot as far as PRDs are concerned in the Historic District, when in a stunning turn of events, the very same three council members voted to eliminate PRDs altogether from the residential Historic District. Hodges, Blanton, and Crawford apparently switched positions in between votes, delighting opponents of PRDs and leaving others perplexed.
Kathryn Zickert, an attorney for the law firm that filed the proposed text amendment to clarify the PRD approval process, was shocked about how the meeting was conducted. “Why did they spend two hours debating what kind of review should occur of a PRD project in the Historic District just to remove it altogether?” asked Zickert.“They did not even vote on the text amendment we proposed,” said Zickert, who noted the council voted on an entirely different approval process than what her law-firm, Smith, Gambrell & Russell (SGR) proposed. “I think it was very clear that there was a great deal of confusion among many people. There were so many procedural oddities that I do think their action is very possibly subject to challenge. We are evaluating our way forward. I have never seen anything like this. I have been all over the nation and I do this for a living. This meeting wins one of the top five prizes for the most outrageous and unusual hearings that I have ever seen in my 37-year career.”
Councilman Crawford made the motion to eliminate PRDs, which City Attorney Joe Reitman, had to step in to help clarify, as the motion was complicated and bogged down with legal and zoning jargon. The audience was shocked and when Blanton and Hodges voted along with Crawford to get rid of PRDs. Afterwards, Hodges asked for clarification on the vote and suggested redoing it, but the crowd erupted into shouts denouncing the idea. Hodges told the crowd that she was fine with the vote as it stood.
“As a concept, I like PRDs,” said Hodges in a post-meeting interview. “I think they work as a flexible zoning tool. However, I think we should take our time crafting a two-tiered COA process with land-plan standards and guidelines for density before we consider using them. I’m not opposed to them being reintroduced, but with set guidelines so to level the playing field.”
According to City Planner Monica Callahan, the first vote mandating a two-tiered COA approval process is “essentially moot” since PRDs have been abolished. Technically, that approval process is now applicable to the three other types of Planned Developments, but there is no current property within the Historic District that is eligible at this time.
“HPC has no pressing need to rush any new guidelines since the handful of residential properties are no longer eligible and there are not any eligible non-residential parcels. So, this issue is essentially moot unless there are acts of God, teardowns, or land assembly in the downtown area,” explain Callahan, who noted the vote could have unintended consequences on planned developments in the Corridor zones. “Actually, now Corridor Design Commission (CDC) might need to move forward faster with new guidelines for commercial and industrial properties since there are multiple properties of eligible size now affected if a planned development is desired.
The amendment to abolish PRDs in the residential Historic District was crafted by Historic District residents James Orr, Elizabeth Bell, and Celia and Walter Murray.
“We are very pleased. We had huge community support behind us and we think it is the right result for Madison now and in the future,” said Orr and Bell in a joint statement.
The opposition to PRDs in the Historic District grew earlier this year because of one controversial project proposed on Foster Street. Developer Brad 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 was fiercely opposed by residents in the Historic District who fear the development will be “too dense” for the area, cause traffic congestion, parking problems, noise, potentially decrease property values in the Historic District, and diminish local tourism. The project stalled after the opposition pointed out a mandate in City’s Zoning Ordinance that mandated rezoning applicants acquire a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) before the Madison Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) could review the application. Good’s law firm, Smith, Russell and Gambrell (SRG), filed a request to alter the City’s Zoning Ordinance to reflect the city’s practice before the Foster Street Project. Although SRG’s amendment was on the city council’s agenda, the council did not vote on SRG’s proposal, but instead voted of the “two-tiered COA” idea, which was originally intended to serve as a compromise between the concerns of developers and the concerns of local residents.
Good was thrown for a loop after the vote. “We are now debating what we are going to do and looking into what our options are as far as the project goes,” said Good.
While PRDs have now been made obsolete by the council’s vote, the council has the legislative discretion to revisit the matter at any time.
“The only way PRDs can be reinstated within the Historic District is if the city or a third party initiates a request for it, which would require public notice and a public hearings,” explained Reitman.