With around two hours of public comment, the current Common Council met for the final time last night before the April 4 election. There, they voted to approve important rezoning for the Filene House to be demolished and converted into new housing, and to approve creating a plan to address the city’s current crisis in home healthcare.
The proposed new housing development on Sherman Avenue, on the property known as the Filene House, went before the council for the second time last night. Earlier this year, the property went before the council in an attempt to label the property a historic landmark, due to it once being home to credit union movement, and being the site of a speech by former President Harry Truman. That landmark designation failed in February.
Earlier this month, the city’s Plan Commission voted to approve a demolition permit for the Filene House, under the condition that the building first be professionally photographed and documented to the standards of the state Historical Society. Heather Strouder with the city’s Plan Division says that the Plan Commission is the final stop for demolition permits, unless the building is designated a historic landmark or sits in a local historic district
Last night, the proposed development’s developer, Vermillion Development, sought to rezone the property for residential use, a needed step to building an apartment building on the site.
As in the past, neighbors opposing the project came out in droves, delivering over an hour of public comment at last night’s meeting.
Larry Nesper, member of the Sherman Terrace Neighborhood Association, echoed the sentiment of many of those who spoke at last night’s meeting, concerned about the lack of bus service near the property.
“Is it perfect because of the distance residents will have to trek to grocery stores, pharmacies, coffee shops, restaurants, and other services, none of which are a reasonable walking distance from 1617 Sherman?” Nesper asks. “Maybe they’ll take the bus. You must know that the current #2 bus passes this property 18 times a day heading downtown and 18 times a day heading north. Did you know that the Network Redesign eliminates the #2 (bus), and substitutes peak only services that starts heading outbound and loops back? This will not help deter people from using their cars.”
Under Network Redesign, the stop near the Filene House would only run during peak times. The closest regular stop is on East Johnson, about a 15 minute walk from the Filene House.
But supporters say the proposed development not only fits with the neighborhood plans for the property, but will have a significant positive impact on addressing the city’s housing crisis.
Kira Light, who spoke at last night’s meeting, says that building apartments at the site will help bring more young professionals to the downtown area.
“As a young professional myself, supporting this project means supporting my community by creating opportunities to connect with others in my age demographic, and encouraging growth of population which leads to new experiences and events for everyone,” Light says. “This benefits not only businesses in Madison, but people in Madison.”
Despite the hour of public comment, the council unanimously voted to approve the rezoning, and had no discussion on the change.
The council also voted last night to study and create a comprehensive report on the crisis in home healthcare in Madison.
According to a recent report from the Wisconsin Assisted Living Association, over 18,000 people with disabilities sought and were denied services for long-term caregivers in Wisconsin last year, namely due to a lack of available caregivers.
The resolution to create a comprehensive report is spearheaded by District 12 Alder Barbara Vedder, herself is in a wheelchair and requires help to get in and out of bed every day.
The study, which would be headed by the city’s Disability Rights Commission, would look into connecting students from the UW and other higher level institutions with home caregiver organizations, reaching out to and recruiting folks in diverse neighborhoods, and finding benefits the city can offer home healthcare workers to entice them to live and work in Madison.
District 3 Alder Erik Paulson spoke in support of the measure last night, saying that as Wisconsin’s population continues to age, supporting home healthcare workers will only become more and more important.
“This is going to be one of the great challengers of the 21st century,” Alder Paulson says. “Besides environmental issues and equity issues, helping people is going to be one of the great challenges, and reorienting society around less about making things, as we have that more and more under control and ChatGTP takes all the jobs, the jobs that aren’t going to go away are those helping people, and so many people in our society need help.”
The resolution to begin the study passed by a unanimous vote. The Disability Rights Commission will have until October 1 to submit their findings to the council.
Finally, the council unanimously approved a resolution to support the Madison Municipal Courts in their move to dismiss certain marijuana convictions.
In 2020, the city decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, up to 28 grams.
Last night’s resolution supports work that is already being done by the city attorney’s office. Earlier this month, the city’s courts dismissed nearly 300 marijuana convictions between February of 2019 and December of 2020. That amounts to refunding around $11,000 to those who paid their fines, and forgiving around $18,000 to those who did not.
District 4 Alder Mike Verveer says that, because the council and the courts are separate legislative powers, the council could not write a resolution to dismiss the convictions. But through cooperative efforts between the two, he says that they were able to utilize a loophole in state law to get the convictions overturned.
“Technically, under state law, municipal courts can’t ‘expunge records,’” Verveer says. “So the way that we went about doing this was the city attorney, as the prosecutor in Madison Municipal Court, moved to dismiss en masse all prior convictions that our court tracking system was able to find. Then, the judge agreed to reopen and dismiss all of those cases en masse.”
Those with marijuana convictions within the applicable window will have their cases dismissed automatically, and the city will send a refund check to their last known address.
The city conducted a major overhaul of their court tracking software in February of 2019, which is why cases after that are the only ones automatically dismissed. But, Verveer says that those convicted of marijuana possession before 2019 still have options available to have their case dismissed as well.
“If anyone received a weed citation by a Madison cop prior to 2019, and were convicted in Madison Municipal Court, they are able to approach the court and ask, in a similar fashion if equity, to have their cases likewise reopened and dismissed,” Verveer says. “Folks that were cited under the old ordinances should appeal directly to the Madison Municipal Court, and the city attorney as the prosecutor would support the reopening of those individual cases, and those refunds likewise being issued.”
The resolution supporting the court’s dismissal of old marijuana convictions passed by a unanimous vote.
Also at last night’s meeting, the council voted to increase the number of allowable backyard chickens within city limits from four to eight, and voted to dissolve the city’s Task Force on Government Structure, or TFOGS.
Photo courtesy: Brian Standing / WORT Flickr