Madison Ordinance to Increase Front Setbacks from Zero to Five Feet to Provide More Room for Street Tree Canopies

In early 2021, the Madison Common Council adopted an ordinance which modifies the Madison zoning districts that allow for a zero front setback to require a minimum 5-foot front setback if the distance between the curb and property line is less than 15 feet will be introduced at the Common Council.  The purpose of increasing the minimum front setback from zero to 5 feet was to create more room for street tree canopies. The ordinance contained a map that identifies some Downtown block faces that will be exempted from the ordinance.  City planning staff said exempting these block faces is a concession being made by the sponsoring alders in response to feedback provided by members of Smart Growth and Downtown Madison, Inc.

If the distance between the curb and the property line of a parcel is slightly less than 15 feet, the ordinance provides that the property owner can agree to recording a no-build easement to increase the distance from the curb to the facade of the future new building to 15 feet and thereby avoid the five-foot setback.  For example, if the distance between the curb and the property line is 14 feet, the property owner can avoid the 5-foot setback by agreeing to record a one-foot-wide no-build easement.

Smart Growth pointed out the city government did not provide notice of this proposed ordinance to affected property owners.  City planning staff responded the city government does not provide notice to individual property owners when zoning text amendments are proposed, so they will not give notice to individual property owners who will be adversely affected by this ordinance.

Smart Growth questioned, among other things, whether (a) there are not less disruptive alternatives to help street trees thrive, (b) the negative impact of the ordinance on the tax base and economic development outweighs the benefits of healthier street trees, and (c) the potential inequity created by well connected property owners such as the members of Smart Growth having notice of this proposed ordinance while owners of other, smaller impacted properties do not.