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New Wauwatosa zoning code 'simpler, sleeker,' more up to date

Updated code years in the making, city attorney says

Feb. 26, 2013

Updating the city's zoning ordinance has been a project a year and half or two years in the making, and has been on the city's horizon for much longer than that.

"I've been here almost 12 years and we've been saying it ever since I got here," City Attorney Alan Kesner said, of updating zoning.

The new zoning code, approved last week by the Common Council, consumes about 200 pages of the city ordinances, and replaces a code last updated in 1972. Much of the code remains essentially the same, though it is better organized and easier to work with, Kesner said. It also is reflective of changing lifestyles in a few of its features.

"Zoning is one of the most important things that a city government does," Kesner told members of the Common Council last week. "It really outlines everything that we, as a government, think this city should look like, within the limits of what we think we should do."

Updating the old code

Kirk Bishop, of Duncan Associates, consultant to the city in the zoning code rewrite, used the image of the 1972 Pinto to illustrate the zoning code.

The old code, even with updates, is "faster, sleeker, but it's still a Pinto," Kesner said.

The old version has 58 different subsections, the titles of which are often confusing, especially to a lay reader. It has, for example, sections called "AA Light Manufacturing District," "AA Commercial District," "AA Business District" and "AA Industrial District" - titles which, to those aren't city planners by profession, might seem the same, or at least to overlap.

The new code contains just 18 chapters, under just seven sections: "Legal Framework," "Districts," Uses - General," "Use Regulations," "Nonconformities," "Procedures/Administration/Enforcement," and "Terminologies and Measurements."

Kesner cited the importance of updating nonconformities, as "almost everything was nonconforming under the old code."

New code changes

While "the bulk of this code was not intended to be a policy change," he cited a few important changes that are included in the new code.

They include:

Landscaping provisions with greater certainty and predictability;

Pedestrian standards for new developments, including defined sidewalks that lead, for example, to and from roads and parking lots and between store entrances in large retail developments;

A policy on variances he termed "use it or lose it." Previously, Kesner said, variances - exceptions to code - may have been granted, but in many cases not used;

Policies on solar and wind energy systems; vehicle charging stations; and mobile food stations or trucks; and

Bicycle and motorcycle parking accommodations.

The code also simplifies and combines requirements related to things such as personal improvement services (massages services, gyms, yoga classes and so forth), retail uses, offices uses and medical uses.

Kesner said the old code was more complex than the new one.

"It used to be you had to look in our old zoning code for a separate place for pet supply stores, as opposed to any other kind of store, whether it be a hair-supply store, or whatever," he said. "Now you have 'retail uses.'"

Additional modifications

Other changes include simplified setback requirements, a simpler approval process for garage heights, nonconforming uses, drive-through regulations, parking requirements for businesses, and historic preservation procedures.

On the parking regulations, Kesner said, "BelAir Cantina on North Avenue - I'm going to confess something to you right now - would not have fit, would not have worked with parking under the old code."

The BelAir Cantina proposal was approved anticipating the adoption of the new code.

In addition, many conditional use designations have been eliminated, making the use permitted under the new code. For example, grocery stores and ATM machines no longer need conditional use approval.

Some extremely dated features of the old code have been excised, as well. For example, the code eliminates uses for telegraph services, videotape rental and sale, bottled gas sales, and a reference to "legitimate theaters."

"I'm not sure what that is," Kesner joked.

Much of the massive ordinance relates to businesses as opposed to residents and might make for beneficial reading for insomniacs. 

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