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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Fight Over Wisc. Center for Homeless Heats Up

MADISON, Wis. (CN) - After complaining that a Wisconsin town used zoning as a basis to cloak its bias against the homeless in denying a permit to build a day center, Dane County has sued the community for unfair treatment.

The county already owns the Madison property in question, but wants to expand the facility into a day center, open 12 hours per day, that would offer food preparation, bathing, storage and laundry facilities, in addition to assistance in finding employment and permanent housing. Dane says transportation will be available to and from the public center.

After a county zoning administrator found that the day resource center was a permitted use last year, the town of Madison teamed up with residents and others in protest.

They complained in a July 21 letter that the center will harm the neighborhood, including a nearby park and town hall.

"With an initial estimate of up to a hundred homeless individuals spending at the very least their days in this area, it can be anticipated that the shelter will also impact the use of these neighboring areas, including excessive use of restrooms, sheltering in the buildings or parks during the day and evening, increased litter such as empty beer and liquor containers, and general public order," their notice of appeal said.

The Dane County Board of Adjustment nevertheless rejected that appeal, finding that the center would provide services similar to other businesses in a C-1 commercial district and would not be directly controlled by the county, eliminating the need for town approval.

"The board must make their decision based on the language of the zoning code, not how the outcome of their decision may affect interested parties," according to the minutes of the July 25 public appeal hearing.

Roger Lane, Dane County's zoning administrator, answered in an Aug. 14 brief that the residents are using zoning code to cushion their real problem.

"This appeal has nothing to do with the 'use' of the property and everything to do with the people who will use the property," Lane wrote. "That is not the purpose of zoning."

Lane has not returned a request for comment.

The town and two couples filed suit over the dispute in November, claiming that their reasoning is irrelevant if the zoning is indeed incorrect. That case is pending before Dane County Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess.

Dane County countered this month with a suit of its own in the same court, calling the conditions that the town has imposed on its approval of the site plan "arbitrary and capricious."

Madison allegedly wants to charge Dane for emergency services and unnecessary public landscaping, and have it remove snow "as per the town public works director," rather than by ordinance. Further, the town wants to require commission approval of any increase in occupancy or future alterations, according to Dane's complaint.

Dane says the town has no authority to charge a single property owner for police and fire services, and ambulance services may only be charged to the person served.

The required landscaping does not exist on the property, and the town cannot require the county to "make improvements to the entire length of the street" as a condition of extending water to the property, which the county has already agreed to fund.

Finally, approval requirements for changes in the building's construction or occupancy are laid out in town ordinance, and anything in excess of those cannot be imposed on a single property.

Madison's interim director of public works, Renee Schwass, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The county is represented in both actions by David Gault, who was unavailable for comment.

John Gerlach with LaRowe Gerlach Taggart, who is representing Madison in the first lawsuit, declined comment on either.

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