“You made the wrong decision!” shouted a man as he stormed out of the Madison Mayor and City Council meeting Monday evening. He wasn’t alone. Many attendees exited the meeting booing and jeering at the city council after a controversial rezoning decision was narrowly passed in a 3-to-2 vote. Some threatened legal action.
After nearly two years of delays, denials, and repackaging, Foster Park, a housing development proposed for Madison’s historic district, was granted the rezoning to allow for 19 houses to be built behind the Thomason Miller House on Main Street in Madison. Madison Mayor Fred Perriman broke a 2-to-2 tie in favor of rezoning the property from a Residential 2 zone to a Residential 4 zone with several conditions—including a 19-house limit for the development. Residential 4 zoning allows smaller lot sizes, which would enable the Foster Park development to build 19 lots along a double-loaded road. Councilmembers Joe DiLetto and Carrie Peters Reid also voted in favor of the rezoning. Councilmen Eric Joyce and Rick Blanton voted to deny it. Councilwoman Chris Hodges recused herself from the vote.
The shocking vote was the culmination of a chaotic meeting, rife with interruptions, insults, and protest signs from the crowd. The overwhelming majority of those in attendance were against the Foster Park project, and vehemently opposed to any R4 zoning in the historic district.
During the meeting, opponents pulled out all the stops to try to prevent the council’s looming approval. Several citizens in the audience repeatedly interrupted proceedings, talking over the city council and City Attorney Jim Carter. Before the public hearing even began, James Orr, local attorney and historic district resident, stormed the podium to demand Councilman Joe DiLetto recuse himself from the process, accusing DiLetto of bias. Orr produced an email written by Joe DiLetto to City Planner Monica Callahan as evidence in April of 2017 as evidence of “clear evidence of personal animosity and bias.”
“I have to make this motion,” said Orr, despite Carter’s insistence that he had no right to make a motion. “I am making this motion and I have to make it now.”
According to Orr, DiLetto wrote to Callahan: “I apologize for not aggressively attacking the negative barbs thrown at you tonight. I have been asked to bite my tongue and not create a situation that might be construed as biased in dealing with the nimbies. However, I should have come with a counter to Theresa [Bishop] this evening and I am sorry that I did not, especially when the comp plan process was challenged. I need to come up with a way to leverage the public against them, and I will.”
DiLetto defended his e-mail to Callahan, arguing that he was not speaking to policy but to personal attacks levied against Callahan during a public meeting on Comp Planning, not the Foster Park development.
“I feel in pretty good shape,” said DiLetto. “This here was directed by the attack on Ms. Callahan and I really felt badly that I did not at that time take a more aggressive position on the attacks on her. I have no bias, and if I do then I must have it on both sides since I’ve been accused of bias by both sides. “
However, the council was undeterred and voted to allow DiLetto to continue participating in the process.
During proceeding several attendees spoke out of turn and were deemed out of order. Stratton Hicky shouted out numerous times to correct the council’s voting procedures. Cathy Andrews stood up and told the council to “arrest me” if they had to, but that she was going to speak regardless. Ira Block facetiously spoke in favor of the project by satirically citing “the age of Donald Trump” demanded that the council must make developers wealthy. “It is your duty to make these people rich and if you don’t make them rich you are violating your oath of office,” said Block, invoking laughs from the crowd. But the laughs ceased later when Block interrupted the council with several angry outbursts that resulted in a heated shouting match with Jim Carter and Mayor Perriman threatening to have Block physically removed.
“You can’t tell me I am out of order! You’re just the counsel, I am talking to the council,” yelled Block at Carter, as Perriman intervened with a stern warning.
“We will have you removed from this room if you get up again,” said Perriman as he banged his gavel.
Orr and Chuck Dorr, another local attorney representing Robert and Dena Lanier and Penny Foote, took up most of the opposition’s allotted time to speak, both arguing against Developer Brad Good’s rezoning application–warning that the project would corrupt the integrity of the historic district, add unwanted density, feature inconsistent styles from the rest of the district, prompt lawsuits and set a precedent for other developers to demand similar projects in the future.
Before Perriman broke the tie to approve the rezoning request, he urged the crowd to consider a different perspective on the project.
“At the end of the day, we sit here and ask ourselves what is best for the city of Madison, for the Historic District and for the community as a whole,” said Perriman, who cited the coming new schools and new hospital, along with the large industries like Facebook setting up shop in Stanton Springs, as examples of why more housing is needed within the City of Madison. “When we think about having younger families move to our community, we can’t have them move here if there are no houses for them to move to. Sometimes as we get older, we get set in our ways and we forget. But I think it is up to this council to make this city viable—to enhance people moving to Madison, not for selfish reasons, but to make Madison better.”
Developer Brad Good was relieved after the meeting.
“This was a long time coming,” said Good. “I think we ultimately came to the best plan possible and we think it is a step in the right direction for Madison.”
But Good’s relief may be short lived.
According to Carter, James Orr, Elizabeth Bell, Celia Murray and Chuck Dorr, all indicated a legal challenge to the council’s decision was forth coming.
“After the meeting, I was told to expect legal action,” said Carter. “They all indicated to me that this would not be the end of the process.”
In an interview Tuesday morning, Dorr confirmed that his clients were considering their legal options to challenge the city council’s ruling. Dorr also sent a letter to the city asking the council to “vacate the decision” and adopt new procedural rules to ensure “due process for everyone.”
“We think this decision was wrong for a lot of reasons, and among those reasons is the way at which the city council arrived at their decision,” said Dorr.
“I think that there were procedural problems with the way the meeting was conducted and I think the result was riddled with defects and my clients are looking their options. We have asked the City to vacate the decision in a letter I sent this morning and hopefully they will do that,” said Dorr. Adopt a set of procedural rules that we think are required to ensure due process to everyone. “
“We think for a lot of reasons, this decision was wrong, and among those reasons is the way the city council arrived at it.”
According to Carter, if the opposition moves forward with legal action, the project could be delayed even further during a lengthy appeals process.