Officials continue to grapple with building heights

Exceptions to 35-foot threshold fuel long-running debate that Port Plan Commission is working to settle
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Ozaukee Press staff

A perennial topic regarding Port development — the allowable height of buildings — will be taking center stage at Plan Commission meetings over the coming months, officials said last month.

The commission began its discussion with a work session on Aug. 18, looking at height requirements in several lakefront communities.

Bob Harris, the city’s director of planning and development, said the long debated issue will need to dovetail with the city’s new downtown plan when it is completed and will be incorporated in the zoning code when the city undergoes a recodification next year.

“It’s been an issue a few times over the last couple years,” he said.

The current zoning allows buildings that are as tall as 61 feet, Harris said, but any building that’s taller than 35 feet needs special approval from the city.

“It’s not a cap at 35 feet,” he said.

The fact that special approval is required is a benefit, some commission members said, because it allows the city to require better designs in return for the extra height.

“I think for the most part the ability to impose good design on buildings over 35 feet has done good,” Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven, a commission member, said.

But member Kyle Knop disagreed, saying, “I don’t think that ability is ever lost.”

But setting a strict height standard, he said, gives building owners and architects an idea of what’s expected.

“Right now, it’s a complete crap shoot,” he said. “There is a cringe-worthy amount of precedent set every time we allow (taller buildings).

“That gets us into a real slippery slope.”
Some communities measure buildings by the number of stories, something most commission members didn’t seem to embrace.

“I think people care about overall height,” Vanden Noven said. “I don’t care how many stories there are.”

But Knop said having standards for both height and stories is beneficial.

“If we do stories and maximum height, that gives people enough latitude,” he said.

The commission reached no consensus, and Harris said the panel will continue to discuss the issue in future meetings.

Port isn’t alone in grappling with building heights, particularly as they relate to its lakefront, he added.

In Michigan, many of the lakefront resort towns he spoke to are looking at the same things. Many have had some of the same issues as Port has dealt with, especially buildings that may meet the general height guidelines but have ancillary pieces, aka doinks, that exceed the limit.

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