The City of Rhinelander planning commission met Wednesday with the consultant hired by the Common Council earlier this summer to perform a land development audit and update the city's zoning ordinances.
Mark Roffers of MDRoffers Consulting of Madison was introduced to the commission by mayor Chris Frederickson.
"I work for a small company that's named after me and my wife, who is also a member of the company," Roffers said. "I've done planning and zoning work in Wisconsin for 27 years now, including zoning ordinance updates for Shawano and Lincoln County, the village of Weston, which is where Daniel (Guild, city administrator) and I have worked together, and several other communities - large and small - throughout the state."
Roffers said he was hired to do two things for the city.
"The first is to help you update the city zoning ordinance. And I will be engaging with you quite a bit over the course of the next several months on that project. And I see that some of you are already peeking at the work program for that," Roffers said. "That work program involves, I think, either four or five meetings with the plan commission, several interactions with your staff, as well as opportunities for the public to get involved with the process."
Roffers suggested that the first session, where he and the commission would "roll up our sleeves and talk about the zoning ordinance in depth" be scheduled for November.
"At that point in time, I will have dug into your ordinance a lot more than I have to date," he said. "I'll be able to share at least some preliminary thoughts on possible directions in a broad sense and then organize opportunities for you all to brainstorm on key issues and opportunities and suggested changes to the ordinances based on your interaction with it over the last several months or years, depending on your tenure here."
He said he would start first on the second portion of his assignment.
"What we're calling a land development services audit," Roffers said. "This is an opportunity for us to learn about how you all process applications for land development review, whether it's a simple building permit all the way up to a major development proposal that comes before the commission and the City Council."
This work will result in a report in a couple of months, he noted.
"It will cover two different things. It will evaluate the processes that you all have to review development proposals, the ordinances and how users and the community interact with your team. And relatedly, evaluate the operations of your planning, zoning and building function," Roffers said. "And, as you know, it's fairly unique your arrangement of a kind of combined fire department and inspections department, so that is going to be a key part of our research and recommendations as to whether that makes sense to the city in the long term, or if some other arrangement, whether it's a tweaked arrangement or some significant arrangement is more suited for your future."
He said the process he is using for this part of his work is to talk to as many people as possible.
"I've already talked with a couple folks at this table, and will look forward to speaking with more people tomorrow morning," he said.
The goal is to provide recommendations on how the commission and city can better align their plans and ordinances with the current practices and procedures, he explained.
"Should the practices change, the ordinances and plans ought to change to match your stated goals and objectives for the future of the city," Roffers said. "The zoning ordinance update would certainly be an opportunity to execute some of those recommendations for perhaps a better alignment of expectations and practices."
He said that he hopes to deliver a draft policy and procedures guide that would be aimed at all city staff outlining how staff interacts with the land development functions and zoning changes to make sure everyone is operating under the same procedures and outline common knowledge of how the system works going forward in the event of personnel changes in the future.
"And then secondly, an opportunity with this process to provide a guide for the very frequent first-time and occasional users of your system. And what I mean by that is folks that come in seeking a rezoning, a conditional use permit, a building permit," Roffers said. "They're not sure what they need, but they know they have to go through some sort of process to get there."
Roffers then asked the members of the commission about their goals related to land development and the process the city uses to review proposed developments.
"And, if you want to personalize it, why are you on the planning commission?" he added.
Commissioner Sandy Bergman cited orderly growth as a goal.
"Everything else then falls in line," Bergman said. "And it should be user-friendly."
Mayor Chris Frederickson said he would foresee the end result would be an improved system that would "stand the test of time" and continue even after the present membership of the commission has been replaced in the future.
"Parts change, but the direction shouldn't be that far off," Frederickson said.
Roffers said the comprehensive plan and ordinances should be designed to withstand the replacement of "cogs" within the organization.
"You've been fortunate enough to have a lot of continuity in your staff," he said. "But they have procedures in place that they can work with and that go beyond them."
Bergman noted that the system has to be compatible all the way through where the land use plan, ordinances all fit together.
"We've made some mistakes, but we've learned," commissioner George Kirby said.
"We're an old city, we're a river city, we're mature neighborhoods," Bergman pointed out.
It was also pointed out that while the city hopes to attract younger residents, the plan and ordinances have to take into account that a sizable portion of current population is "aging in place" and that a balanced approach is best.
Fire chief and inspector Terry Williams pointed out that there are a lot of properties in Rhinelander that are improperly zoned.
"This is hurting our residents," Williams said. "There are a lot structures that can't (be) refinanced for better (interest) rates because they're zoned wrong. I've been informed by past (city) administrators that if they want to rezone, they can pay the fee. Well, we want to do what is right for our citizens too, to make sure that everybody has a chance to prosper."
He also noted that a lot of local homeowners are not wealthy.
"A lot of these people look at what it would cost them to come to a meeting and have it rezoned versus 'ah, just forget about refinancing.' I think we can help a lot of our residents with a lot of that," Williams said. "I'm looking forward to that because it will have a big impact on a lot of our residential areas."
When asked if the banks would go along with that, Williams replied "it would be in the banks' best interests."
Roffers agreed that by "bank rules" improper zoning is a huge strike against such a deal.
"Insurance companies are the same way," Williams said. "We get calls from insurance companies all the time asking how come this is zoned business when these people are living there? Will you write us a letter that will allow them to live there."
Frederickson agreed that cleaning up the zoning of residential properties would go a long way toward spurring owners to refinance to make necessary home improvements they can't afford right now.
Williams added that in the process of updating the zoning ordinances, these properties would be rezoned without the owners having to pay the fee for going through the process.
"All we would have to do would be to put the notice out to the public," Williams said. "I can knock on doors and people would be ecstatic and lined up tomorrow."
Another question Roffers said the commission will have to answer to is where do Community Development Block Grants fit in the development plan going forward?
When the updated zoning ordinances are complete in 12-14 months, it will correct the zoning map for the entire city, Roffers added.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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