At a second public meeting to discuss Fort Atkinson’s proposed new zoning ordinance Thursday, debate spanned from requiring new downtown businesses to add parking to preventing single-family homes from building garages in front of the house.
For more than two and a half hours, city staff, council members, plan commissioners and members of the public went back and forth on the proposed regulations that will dictate the rules for new buildings in Fort Atkinson.
The meeting delved deep into some of the issues and gave ample input on the draft, according to Ben Rohr, an associate planner with Vandewalle and Associates, the consulting firm tasked with writing the draft.
“I think it was pretty much what we were looking for,” Rohr said. “People were very considerate of each other. We got to hear from everybody in the room. I really liked the format and people sharing their opinions. We got some solid feedback.”
While Rohr said the disagreements stayed respectful, there were times it was clear a consensus was not going to be reached.
One of those times came when the discussion moved to allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the code. An accessory dwelling unit is a second structure on a lot that the owners could rent out, such as an apartment over a detached garage.
The upside of allowing ADUs is it can help with the city’s lack of housing, according to Mike Slavney, principal planner on the project.
“This is the low-hanging fruit for affordable housing,” Slavney said. “Theoretically, with every single-family home, you can get another unit, which is a tremendous supply of affordable housing.”
Affordable housing is one of the largest issues currently facing Fort Atkinson. A 2019 report by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater found Fort Atkinson has a housing shortage that only will grow worse. The problem exists for single- and multi-family units.
City Building Inspector Brian Juarez was against the idea, saying he was worried about ADUs restricting parking availability and the circumvention of single-family zoning districts.
“I have my opinion, same as any other citizen,” Juarez said. “In my opinion they’re not very desirable. I get concerned it would usurp the purpose for single-family rezoning.”
But, if this isn’t the answer, the city still needs to get creative when it comes to solving this problem, city councilmember Mason Becker said.
“Lack of affordable housing is one of our biggest problems right now,” Becker said. “Long-term, we really need to think outside the box.”
Also drawing a lot of discussion were the proposed new standards for downtown and commercial parking.
Downtown, the draft code would not require a new downtown business to add parking — which, Slavney said, encourages development. He said other communities he has worked with have done this with their code to encourage pedestrian use of downtown.
“When you require on-site parking for one floor of a building, half of the site area has to go to parking,” Slavney said. “One reason for businesses is there’s lots of on-street parking. (Other communities) would rather have their downtowns be more vital all year, and have to live through having to find a parking space.”
While most of those in attendance were on board with the idea of encouraging pedestrians downtown, council member Bruce Johnson was wary of having less parking for more businesses.
“There is a finite amount of space out there,” Johnson said. “Waiving (the requirement) would throw gas on the fire.”
When the topic moved to exterior building design, the conversation again got heated.
While the current code applies to all structures other than single- and two-family homes, the draft could put some requirements on them. For example, preventing “snout houses” that have garages in front of the home.
Some people were all for the idea of setting certain standards, saying Fort Atkinson has a lot of pride for itself, but others were more cautious.
“I have a certain amount of trepidation about imposing this on single-family and two-family,” Juarez said.
Slavney said most communities in the area that have had code rewrites have not wanted to get close to this issue.
“Most communities haven’t wanted to touch single-family because a person’s home is their castle,” Slavney said. “There tends to be a lot of reluctance politically to touch them.”
City Engineer Andy Selle said it might be a good idea to impose certain requirements on two-family homes which more often would be owned by a developer and rented out.
“We should consider looking at two-family homes,” Selle said. “When you begin to build in a for-profit scenario, in those situations we may be in the realm of requiring certain standards.”
The building inspector warned that design requirements could increase the cost of building homes in Fort.
“Any time we impose certain aesthetic requirements, it does increase the cost,” Juarez said. “That’s okay, but we need to walk the line with having enough affordable housing.”
Slavney said the city has the option of leaving these requirements out of the zoning code and putting them in restrictive covenants with the developers themselves.
The meeting also touched on landscaping requirements for multi-family, commercial, industrial and mixed-use lots. The proposed code would work on a points system in which owners would need to add enough foliage to reach a certain number, with different plants having different point values.
There also was talk about the rules governing signs for businesses and homeowners. The most discussion surrounded yard signs with the group settling on allowing residents to have two signs per yard.
Ultimately, Rohr said the meeting was a success.
“There’s still some time to work out the potential issues and build some kind of consensus,” Rohr stated. “Some topics seem like we had a lot of people that were on the same page, and some topics seem like back and forth.”
The next zoning code meeting is scheduled for March 19.