Originally written more than 50 years ago and last updated 20 years ago, the City of Fort Atkinson Zoning Ordinance is being rewritten to allow the code to deal with modern issues and solutions.
A draft of the new code was presented at a special Plan Commission meeting Thursday. With the help of input from city staff and community members, the draft was written by consultants from Madison-based firm Vandewalle and Associates.
Community planning consultants Mike Slavney and Ben Rohr presented the draft ordinance at the meeting, focusing on the proposed new zoning districts that will be created if the city adopts the code.
Slavney didn’t stray away from emphasizing how important the new code can be for the future of Fort Atkinson.
“This is our one chance in a generation to take a crack at making things better for people,” Slavney said.
The new code will be better suited to deal with construction and development problems that are specific to Fort Atkinson, according to Slavney.
“Fort Atkinson’s code was originally based on New York City’s code in 1916,” Slavney said. “We’re taking much less of a leap of faith than Fort Atkinson’s fathers and mothers did when adapting the New York City Code to here.”
Starting with the baseline of the 2000 rewrite, the new code will more accurately reflect Fort Atkinson’s reality, rather than the reality of New York more than a century ago.
The new code allows the city to protect the downtown’s historical character and the city’s greenspaces, while modernizing the city’s solutions to problems such as lack of housing, Rohr said.
Maintaining Fort Atkinson’s downtown was an important aspect for community members when the consultants were seeking input at the beginning of the process. Under the old code, there were no rules dictating how a new property on Main Street had to look.
That will change.
“The current downtown zoning district allows new buildings to have that historic character, or not, including the ability for buildings to be razed to construct a parking lot,” Slavney said. “Under the new code, new downtown buildings must have that historic design. We’re writing a code that is more directly responsive to what you said you need.”
While the new code is a large update to Fort Atkinson’s system, current properties won’t see much change. For example, current nonconforming lots will be brought into legality, Slavney said. And even one of the biggest changes presented by Rohr and Slavney — new classifications for zoning districts — won’t have a big change on current properties.
“We’ve made nonconforming properties fully legal to promote reinvestment,” Slavney said, to a few small claps from the community members in attendance. “For 90 percent of properties, although names will change, the rules will fundamentally stay the same.”
Much of the meeting was spent going over the new zoning districts and how the city will be impacted from residential properties to heavy industrial lots.
For residential lots, what used to be broken into three classifications — R-1, R-2 and R-3 — now will be nine separate types of districts.
Single-family homes will be broken into four proposed categories differentiated by lot size. The smallest, SR-7, will sit on a 6,000 square-foot lot and the largest, SR-3, will sit on a 15,000 square-foot lot. In between are SR-4 at 10,000 square feet and SR-5 at 8,000 square feet.
The new categories allow for more flexibility and give the city the opportunity to draw developers for more affordable housing on smaller lots. Slavney said SR-7 likely would hold an approximately 800-square-foot home.
Moving up to two-family homes, there are two proposed categories: duplex residential (DR-8) and two-flat residential (TF-10). The two distinct categories allows the city to differentiate between the two-flats that are more common in older homes in Fort Atkinson and duplexes that are much more popular with modern developments.
With the current code, both types of two-family homes exist as R-2 districts. The proposed code allows DR-8 to sit on a 10,000 square foot lot and TF-10 to sit on a 7,200 square foot lot.
Multi-family homes, previously all designated R-3, will be broken into three different types of districts. Multi-family Residential Low (MRL-8) will be for apartment buildings with three to eight units on lots measuring 12,000 square feet. Multi-family residential medium (MRL-12) will be buildings with 12 to 29 units and multi-family residential high (MRH-30) will be buildings with more than 30 units.
Both MRL-12 and MRL-30 will have lot sizes of at least 20,000 square feet.
Slavney said that while MRL-30 is much bigger than what typically has been in Fort Atkinson, it is a good way to create more affordable housing.
“Those kinds of buildings are going for the most-affordable housing,” Slavney said. “The state is encouraging buildings of this size, but they’re bigger than towns are used to so we want you to have the ability to control their location.”
The new code also will change what now are commercial districts — C-1, C-2, C-3 and C-5 — to mixed-use districts, suburban mixed-use (SMU), neighborhood mixed-use (NMU), urban mixed-use (UMU), downtown periphery mixed use (DPMU) and downtown historic mixed-use (DHMU).
The biggest difference caused by the new mixed-use districts will be multi-story buildings that have retail on one floor and residential on others, according to Slavney.
“We opened strictly commercial to mixed use,” Slavney said. “With the exception of dollar stores and fast-food restaurants, we see very few single-story developments. In terms of expanding your tax base, this is the key trend. Encouraging new businesses, businesses to expand and small businesses to open, this is how you bring them to the community.”
Each mixed-use district has different lot sizes and requirements based on the area — DHMU, for example, must match the aesthetics of Main Street — but they all serve the same purpose.
“The economics are pushing toward multi-story, mixed-use development,” Slavney said. “The new zoning districts reflect uses, lot sizes, intensities of what’s here now. It’s customized to Fort Atkinson.”
On the industrial side, the city will have three types of district: light industrial (LI), medium industrial (MI) and heavy industrial (HI).
Also proposed are a rural holding district for farmland that is set to be incorporated into the city, but still will be temporarily used for agricultural purposesd, institutional districts for places such as churches and schools and a business park district created specifically for Klement Business Park.
Other than new zoning districts, the code suggests changes to lot requirements and principal building setbacks, as well as what land uses the city has control over.
The proposed lot requirements bring a lot of older properties into compliance and still are based on what the city has done in the past.
“Nonconforming lots and setbacks, you rarely get a crack at,” Slavney said. “We don’t make anyone change their property by adopting a new code, only if you want more of one thing or another. In all reality, we tried to use existing dimensions that are working well and lose those that aren’t working well.”
Even with all the changes, Slavney said, the goal was to build a zoning code that gives the city control while promoting business and development.
“We don’t want zoning getting in the way of keeping a city vital,” Slavney said.
The review process of the new code is scheduled to continue with another meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Fort Atkinson Municipal Building. That meeting will focus on the new code’s performance measures and standards, as well as key policy questions that needed to be answered.
Then during a gathering on March 19, the new zoning map will be reviewed.