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District 8

Alder Juliana Bennett

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Alder Juliana Bennett

Council Office

Common Council Office:
210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Room 417
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: (608) 266-4071
Fax: (608) 267-8669
WI Relay Service

Alder Bennett’s Blog

Protest Petitions, Rezoning, Housing

June 7, 2022 6:30 AM

Let's Remove of Protest Petitions and Maintain Simple Majority for Zoning Changes--Addressing Barriers to Madison's Housing Inequity and Housing Supply 



It's time to get rid of protest petitions. Protest petitions are a legacy of white supremacist control over housing in their neighborhoods. This legacy is continued through today in which we still see how protest petition process gives voice to the privileged and silences the underserved. Protest petitions have the impact of stunting rezoning for developments and by extension delaying the development of Madison's much needed housing supply. The alternate ordinance change Council will debate this Tuesday addresses the issue with protest petitions exacerbating (1) inequity in the housing process and (2) stunting the growth of new housing. 

Once protest petitions are *hopefully* removed and we maintain a simple majority for all zoning changes, Madison must continue to work towards the goal of safe, equitable, affordable housing. I encourage everyone to support the alternate ordinance and continue to find ways to strive towards our goal.  


What are protest petitions?

Protest petitions give neighborhoods the ability to express their disapproval over a new development and tangibly impact the vote for zoning approval of the new development. Fellows of the George Mason University noted, "Protest petitions give formal political power to property owners who want to prevent a rezoning." 


Problem 1: The process for filing a protest petition is inequitable. 

One must gather signatures from 20% of property owners or registered electors within 100 feet of the proposed development to file a valid protest petition. Every signature must be notarized by a notary public. (I'll come back to how this is a barrier later). A system that allows folx who will be directly impacted may sound good, but fail under closer scrutiny. 

I witnessed firsthand how the system of protest petitions does not cater to underprivileged folx, last winter, during the Oliv Madison debate. In this situation, the petitioners struggled to identify the eligible addresses to get signatures from, pay for the services of a notary public, and find residents who were registered electors, and could sign the protest petition. The impediments the Oliv Madison petitioners faced would have been a nonissue in a less densely populated area, with homeowners, registered electors, and people with the financial means to pay for a notary service. 


Problem 2: Protest petitions make it easier to block new housing during a time when Madison desperately needs to increase its supply of housing. 

A valid protest petition increases the voting threshold for rezoning at Common Council from a simple majority (11 votes to pass) to a ¾ majority (14 votes to pass). This means that only a handful of the 20 alders can block the rezoning for a new project. This begs the question if we really want to have a process that makes it easier to block new housing. We shouldn't make it easier to block new housing, given the current housing crisis. 

Some may counter that the benefits of blocking a bad development outweighs the costs of slowing the rezoning approval process. One might look to the recent example of the successful Raemisch Farm protest petition and exclaim that this development demonstrates the benefits of protest petitions. While I will not discuss the merits of that project here, I want to point out that the Raemisch Farm proposal was turned down by an overwhelming majority of Council. Thus, the petitioners may have been successful with or without a formal protest petition. Moreover, one successful protest petition cannot account for the costs of other protest petitions that have been filed to block good and/or affordable housing. 


How can community members make their voices heard during rezoning without protest petitions?

A common argument in favor of protest petitions is that it gives community members more voice. Protest petitions do not give people more voice. It simply raises the voting threshold. As such, community members will certainly have the opportunity to weigh in on rezoning without protest petitions. In fact, I'd encourage community members to weigh in throughout the development process, especially at neighborhood steering committee meetings and Plan Commission. 


Why should Council support maintaining zoning changes at a simple majority instead of a ? majority?

Short answer: the same reason you should support removing protest petitions. 

Long answer...

The original ordinance change to remove protest petitions included another change to raise all rezoning to a ? majority. This change would have removed protest petitions, but then essentially given the entire city the power of a protest petition. Logically, this does not make sense, if our goal is to get rid of protest petitions. For this reason, I am glad that the alternate ordinance change is the main motion for Council this Tuesday. I urge my colleagues and everyone else to agree and support the alternate ordinance change!     


Overall, it is clear that protest petitions do not work in an urban environment or for underprivileged folx. After meeting with staff, I learned that the protest petition ordinance is not broken, rather it's working exactly as it was designed. Protest petitions were designed to give homeowners or those with the means necessary the power to keep people out of their neighborhoods. 

It certainly would be an overreach for me to purport that removing protest petitions will magically solve all of our housing issues. It won't. But, it removes another clog in the system. Protest petitions are a reactive policy, a last ditch effort. We should instead be more proactive. We should seek other outlets of increasing community voice in new development such as increasing access to public hearings, neighborhood meetings, and comprehensive planning. We should push the ridiculous GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature to increase tenant protections and municipal authority over housing. In the meantime, we should remove protest petitions to get rid of an outdated, inequitable system that does not solve our housing problems. 


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