Commission advances Northeast Neighborhood

Kurt Gutknecht

The Northeast Neighborhood is located just south of the Beltline and east of U.S. 14.

The Northeast Neighborhood land use plan shows large amounts of green (undeveloped) space surrounding wetlands.

The Fitchburg Plan Commission has given the green light to expand the urban service area to include Northeast Neighborhood east of U.S. Highway 14 and south of Indian Springs Park.

The Commission’s unanimous approval is the first step in a lengthy approval process, which also requires approval of the Common Council, preparation of plans and review by regional and state authorities, a process likely to require a year or more.

When it met Feb. 19, the Commission discounted requests to delay approval by those contending that development of the 660-acre tract would depress the housing market, jeopardize water quality and saddle taxpayers with unnecessary costs, in addition to violating precepts of the city’s comprehensive land-use plan.

Proponents said approval complemented development in the adjacent Uptown Neighborhood and capitalized on the recently completed $19 million interchange with U.S. Hwy. 14. Although some criticized it as “leapfrog development” and sprawl, those in favor said developing the Northeast Neighborhood was consistent with a regional approach to contiguous development.

The highway interchange it connects to is the first one south of the Beltline.

Chris Armstrong, president of Avante Properties, a developer of Uptown, said the city should support residential development in the Northeast Neighborhood to attract developers in the Uptown Neighborhood.

Ald. Steve Arnold said approval should be delayed until the city can provide adequate fire protection and emergency medical service; response times won’t meet city standards until the city constructs two new fire stations. Plans for the stations have been delayed until 2019.

“I’m asking that we follow the (comprehensive land-use) plan itself,” Arnold said.

Ald. Carol Poole, who chairs the commission, said a proposed consolidation of fire service with adjacent communities may end up being a less costly alternative to new fire stations.

Holly Adams, a 33-year resident of Fitchburg, also asked why the city developed a land-use plans if it later decided to disregard it.

The city water utility is concerned that the quality of drinking water would be inadequate until demand was high enough to avoid stagnation.

Commissioner Ed Kinney said these issues would be addressed later in the approval process and praised the city’s ability to make correct decisions. Only once has the city “put the cart before the horse,” he said, citing the failure of the state to agree with the city’s plan to designate E. Cheryl Parkway as the major east-west connection; even that error was instrumental in the expansion of Promega Corp., Kinney said.

Poole called the commission’s recommendation the first in a “series of careful steps” for the city.

“We want it (the Northeast Neighborhood) as an option,” Poole said.

Cal DeWitt, an ecologist with the University of Wisconsin who has previously tried to dissuade the city from developing the area, said recent findings have confirmed that drilling wells in northeastern Fitchburg could damage aquifers, throttling springs flowing into Lake Waubesa and increasing the flow of contaminated runoff into Lake Waubesa. He urged the city to wait until a UW researcher updated a study of groundwater in the area.

Developer Phil Sveum said developers would consider these factors and questioned assertions by former Mayor Jay Allen that the city had told the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission it would not submit another request to expand the urban service area for five years after gaining approval for the North McGaw Park Neighborhood. Poole said she had watched a tape of the meeting.  She said even if Allen had made such an informal commitment, the moratorium was due to expire in 2014.

Only 25 lots are listed for new home construction in the city, Sveum said, noting that other listings may not be suitable for houses. He said Arnold overreacted to the possible negative consequences of having three or four areas available for development simultaneously, noting that the city had benefited from a similar situation several years ago.

Sveum also contested assertions that approval would somehow saddle taxpayers with costs, noting that developers pay for the extension of water and sewer service. Allen countered that the city would bear the cost of services such as fire protection and snow plowing if development didn’t occur quickly enough to generate adequate tax revenue.


Is it too quick?

Allen also said expanding the urban service area would be another example of the city’s “broken promises,” among which he said were changes in Orchard Pointe that were inconsistent with the comprehensive development plan.

City planner Tom Hovel said almost 1,200 acres were already in the urban service area, which is consistent with the city’s land use plan to develop no more than 75 acres annually and to have a 20-year supply of land (plus an additional five years) in the urban service area. He said altering those guidelines was a policy decision.

Hovel warned that there will be “challenges” providing fire protection and that the quality of water “will be potentially a major issue.” Fitchburg doesn’t want to be known as the city with bad water, he said.

Ald. Becky Baumbach said she was concerned that failure to expand the urban service area meant the city might restrict developers’ ability to react to market conditions. Hovel noted that developers failed to anticipate the recent collapse of the housing market.

Sup. Patrick Miles, who represents McFarland and the town of Dunn on the Dane County Board, said expanding the urban service area was “quite simply, bad timing and premature.” He explained that development in the Northeast Neighborhood could have several detrimental effects in adjacent municipalities.

Fitchburg resident Dave Martin said the proposal seemed inconsistent with the city’s designation as a Green Tier Legacy Community and supposedly committed to sustainability.

“There’s always pressure to accommodate powerful and wealthy people who want to build,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck with the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition. Hasbrouck questioned whether a different city planner would be able to rebuff such pressures, and Allen said the proposal was an attempt to “meet someone’s financial needs.”

Other action

* The commission rescinded a policy that all demolition permits had to be approved by the Plan Commission and the Common Council. Instead, permits can be approved by the zoning administrator. Only if a request is rejected will it be reviewed by the Plan Commission and Common Council.

* It approved plans by the private Eagle School, 5454 Gunflint Trail, for an addition to serve as many as 270 students. Current enrollment is 193 students. Former mayor Mark Vivian, who lives near the school, raised concerns about traffic. The school agreed to employ measures, such as car-pooling and additional bus service, to reduce congestion.

* Tim McKenzie received permission to construct a 20-horse boarding and equestrian facility near the intersection of South Fish Hatchery Road and County Hwy. M. He withdrew a request for accommodations for the facility’s manager pending additional planning, including removing an access road on Hwy. M and moving the access road on South Fish Hatchery to the north, farther from the intersection.

* An open-air park shelter in McKee Farms Park near the soccer fields was approved. The shelter was included in the park’s original master plan.

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