The view on Spring Court in 1980.
When Alice Erickson moved to the Spring Harbor neighborhood in 1979, it was a quaint cottage neighborhood on Lake Mendota. But starting around 1990, a new wave of people moved in, cutting down trees, tearing down houses and building "super-sized homes on very small lots" in their place.
"Our street, up 'til about six years ago, had one-car garages or no garages," says Erickson, who lives on Spring Court. "Now we're getting three-car garages, tremendous amounts of paving."
In Spring Harbor and elsewhere, disagreements over monstrous lakefront dwellings have led to bitter contention. Erickson says she's been threatened by some of her new neighbors as she's pushed for modest construction: "It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the lakeside and the non-lakeside."
The committee currently rewriting the city's zoning codes is proposing to limit the size of new construction by finding the ratio of current houses to their lots, says Matt Tucker, city zoning administrator. The city would look at all houses within 1,000 feet of proposed construction to calculate the average ratio.
"You could have new houses no more than 125% of what that ratio is," Tucker says. "You don't want to have that one 12,000-square-foot house among those 4,000-square-foot houses."
For lakeside property, the city will calculate the average setback for the five houses on both sides of new construction. The setback for new homes will be this average, or 30% of the lot's depth, whichever is greater. "So eventually," says Tucker, "you'll have a line in the sand."
Janet Loewi, a past president of the Spring Harbor neighborhood association, says clear zoning code regulations could help ease conflicts. "Then neighbors wouldn't have to go and object to their neighbor's [building] plans, which leads to an uncomfortable situation."
Erickson says it's too late to save her street - the damage is done. But she wants other lakefront neighborhoods protected.
"When we moved into our house, we were really on the outskirts," she says. "And now we're basically in the heart of the city. We have to adapt to that. But some of the things that are happening to the land really shouldn't be."
CDA doing less with less
Faced with a $500,000 budget shortfall, the Madison Community Development Authority has asked the federal government for permission to reduce its subsidy for Section 8 housing vouchers to the poor.
"There really isn't much additional money going into the program at a time when costs are going up because of the economy," says Tom Conrad, the CDA's Section 8 manager.
Section 8 housing has always been limited in Madison. The waiting list is usually closed, but was opened briefly in 2007. There are now about 2,000 people on the waiting list, Conrad says, with 1,400 people getting vouchers.
People with Section 8 vouchers pay 30% of their income toward the cost of an apartment on the private market; the voucher covers the rest, up to a certain level.
CDA now subsidizes rents that are up to 110% of the market average. To meet its funding shortfall, it wants to lower that to 90%, which requires the approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For a two-bedroom apartment, the current rent maximum is $931; with HUD approval, that would drop to $762. "If you're lucky enough to live in a place that costs less than $762, you won't notice any difference," Conrad says.
If you're unlucky, you'll have to pay more for your apartment or find a new place to live.
An administrator for Madison?
Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher has launched a blog, True North first entries begins with a question: "How would you feel getting another 'city leader' without an election? At no additional cost? Sounds too good to be true?"
Maybe it's not most people's idea of Christmas, but Schumacher says he's gotten a positive response to his idea of creating a city administrator.
"I had nobody saying, 'This is absolute nonsense,'" Schumacher says. "I had a lot of people saying, 'This is interesting' and wanting to know more."
City administrators differ from city managers, who are like appointed mayors that answer to the council. A city administrator is a professional, not political, position. He or she supervises city departments, spearheads training efforts and works to make the city more creative and efficient.
"When a department head right now engages a mayoral aide, that department head must be thinking somewhere in the back of his mind, 'This is a political interaction; what does the mayor think?'" Schumacher says. "The city administrator acts as a buffer."
The position could be created with little or no extra funding by channeling staff (and workload) away from the mayor's office. "Then you can have instead of six [mayoral] aides maybe only three," he says. "The savings you would then inject into the administrative office."
Schumacher thinks the idea has merit: "In these times when we're struggling with limited resources, should we not evaluate how we govern ourselves?" But he doesn't plan to give it a hard sell. "If at the end of the day nobody wants it, then no harm done."
That may be the case. Rachel Strauch-Nelson, spokeswoman for Dave Cieslewicz, says the mayor "appreciated Michael's ideas, but doesn't think it's right for Madison."