Baraboo works to tighten zoning rules

September 28, 2018

A committee of city officials and community leaders is editing Baraboo’s outdated zoning code.

City leaders want to fine-tune zoning rules in response to a change in state law that makes it difficult for municipalities to restrict activity on private property. The city convened an ad hoc committee to modernize the zoning code and give the city power to block unwanted land uses.

“The longer we don’t address it, the more likely an application will come around that the city doesn’t want,” said City Attorney Emily Truman.

On Wednesday the group discussed rules for establishing home-based businesses, converting single-family homes into multi-family rentals and other zoning issues. Its goal is to send an updated version of the zoning code to the city Plan Commission.

“If there are uses you don’t want, then we should certainly modify existing uses in the zoning code,” said City Engineer Tom Pinion.

Last year the Legislature enacted limits on municipalities’ zoning power, shifting the burden from permit applicants to cities like Baraboo. It had a local impact earlier this year when the Common Council, on advice from the city attorney, reversed a ruling from its Plan Commission and granted Devine Custom Truck & Auto Repair a permit to sell used cars on South Boulevard.

“It needs to be addressed at the city level. We need to be on the same page about what we want, where,” Truman said.

Outdated restrictions

While working to ensure key business districts aren’t overrun with unwanted property uses, the committee is analyzing the fine print in other passages of the zoning code. They’re considering doing away with some outdated rules, such as restrictions on photo studios likely enacted due to chemical waste concerns, and reconsidering rules for home-based businesses to reflect the prevalence of telecommuting. Any zoning changes would get a public hearing and would require Common Council approval.

“We’re taking a look backward and we’re taking a look forward,” said committee member Melanie Platt-Gibson.

Central to the committee’s challenge are conditional property uses, activities the city previously allowed on a case-by-case basis. State law now says that if an activity appears on a municipality’s list of conditional uses, the city must allow it unless it can provide “substantial evidence” issuing a permit would be problematic. Requirements or conditions must be “reasonable and, to the extent practicable, measurable.”

“That’s the kicker on a lot of this stuff,” Truman said. “There has to be something to back that up.”

Baraboo’s zoning code would improve with some tightening of permitted conditional uses, Alderman Michael Zolper said: “Right now, the list is pretty broad.” The city could outlaw conditional uses altogether.

Pinion previously provided the Plan Commission with a long list of prohibited uses. The committee will take a look at that list and discuss it — along with other potential code revisions — at its next meeting Oct. 10.

One potential change — requiring that anyone looking to transform a single-family home into a multi-family rental live on the premises — will get further discussion. On one hand, the city doesn’t want to stop homeowners from generating income by renting part of their property. And they want to make sure Baraboo maintains an adequate supply of rental homes. But some don’t want rentals to overtake neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences.

“I think they should be owner-occupied,” said council member Tom Kolb. “It can’t be an absentee landlord.”

Committee member Nanci Caflisch, a realtor, said such a requirement would be difficult to enforce and could affect home resale prices.

“To stop that entirely, I think, is a disservice to the community,” she said. “You’d hate to take that right away from someone who would take care of it.”

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