Protecting the Milwaukee River? Or Overreaching Zoning?
Over the past few years the Milwaukee River Work Group (“MRWG”) has pushed to create an overlay district to “protect” the Milwaukee River. This overlay district would create new building setback requirements, height limits, and introduce the concept of a viewshed for properties along the Milwaukee River. The River Revitalization Foundation’s website describes the overlay district as:
The Milwaukee River Work Group also proposes the creation of a small “buffer” area adjacent to the top of the “green” river bluff, which would create a special zoning district where design guidelines would have to be adhered to for NEW, multi-lot development (existing uses and structures “grandfathered”).
Although this overlay district is described as “small,” the truth is the combination of the setback requirement and height restrictions will eliminate significant amounts of developable land within the City of Milwaukee. The 50 foot setback sometimes is larger than 50 feet because it isn’t measured from the bluff line as commonly thought but from the drip line, which is where rain water drips from the edge of the tree leaves along the bluff. Additionally, in some cases this 50 foot setback would eat up about half of a lot, making development of the property nearly impossible. Further, by severely limiting new development this proposal actually encourages leaving abandoned or damaged buildings along the edges of the corridor.
To be clear, the purpose of these requirements aren’t to protect the river. The purpose of these requirements are to create a viewshed. Essentially, by restricting the height of buildings and siting buildings further away from the bluff they can be hidden from view. In this case it isn’t truly possible as various buildings are already visible from the primary environmental corridor, but arguably this may or may not be a desirable feature. That said, it has nothing to do with protecting the water, reducing CO2 emissions, or energy conservation and everything to do with protecting a view. In fact, these requirements fly in the face of environmentalism because by limiting development within the city it encourages more automobile use and promotes energy inefficient, low density development.
If the true intent of the overly district is to protect the primary environmental corridor, then the viewshed should not be a part of the overlay district. One potential solution that would protect the Milwaukee River and avoid these legal, environmental, and growth issues would be to stop development at the drip line. This approach would maintain the primary environmental corridor, protect the trees’ root systems and insure the integrity of the bluff. While at the same time it would allow for new development and the creation of density within the City of Milwaukee, both of which are economically and environmentally desirable goals.