Walworth County Government Today: Resident survey says land preservation key

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Dave Bretl | August 4, 2014

The Southeastern Regional Planning Commission has been having a busy year. A few months ago I reported on a study released by that organization regarding the future of the economy and population of the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region. That report actually figures into an even more ambitious planning effort being undertaken by SEWRPC that focuses on long-range land use and transportation issues called Vision 2050. The goal of Vision 2050 is to allow residents to influence the future of their communities by answering two main questions:

How do you want your community and the region to develop?

How do you want to be connected to the different places in your community and the region where you work, live and play?

As someone who has a hard time deciding what to pack in a suitcase for an overnight trip, I've always admired the thoroughness of SEWRPC's planning process. Vision 2050 is no exception. Planners have provided three opportunities for citizen input, including a random telephone survey, community workshops and an Internet survey. Each method was designed to solicit different information, but all three yielded interesting results.

The community workshops, which required the investment of several hours of time by participants, likely captured the opinion of those most passionate about the issues. These are probably good folks to tap into for an in-depth discussion of the issues, but may not necessarily represent the views of the typical resident. Likewise, the Internet survey presumed knowledge by respondents that the planning process was taking place and required them to take the affirmative step to seek out the survey Web page. As far as discerning the opinions of the average resident, the telephone survey probably hit closest to the mark. Approximately 200 of the 1,500 people surveyed in the study resided in Walworth County. Although residents in all counties shared similar views on many issues, I was surprised that opinions varied in some important ways.

Walworth County residents tended to value the preservation of open space and farmland higher than inhabitants of other counties in the region. Preserving natural areas was rated as a high priority by 83.2 percent of Walworth County respondents, which was the highest rating among the seven counties; in contrast, only 69.5 percent of Waukesha County residents held the same opinion. The preservation of agricultural land, likewise, garnered the highest rating in our county, with 82.5 percent of those responding rating its preservation as a high priority as opposed to 66.3 percent of Waukesha County respondents.

Walworth County residents answered related statements by overwhelming margins, including the following:

New development should occur on agricultural or other open land; 87.9 percent disagreed.

New development should occur as redevelopment and infill in existing cities and villages; 90.1 percent agreed.

New business, retail and industrial parks should be allowed to be developed away from population centers; 70.2 percent disagreed.

New jobs should be located in existing business and industrial parks and retail centers through their redevelopment or expansion; 92.2 percent agreed.

In addition to discerning the attitudes of residents toward future development, the survey attempted to gauge respondents' level of satisfaction with existing infrastructure and services. Walworth County residents gave the highest endorsement of all of the counties surveyed to the region's larger parks. More than 30 percent of our residents rated hiking, camping, golfing and beach swimming opportunities as excellent. Racine County was at the other end of the spectrum; only 12.7 percent of that county's residents shared this view. Nearly half of our residents rated the region's state and interstate highways as above average or excellent; that rating dropped to slightly more than 37 percent when it came to county roads and local streets. Less than half of Walworth County respondents (47 percent) reported regularly commuting to work or school. Thirty-four percent reported a commute time of between zero and 10 minutes, which was, by far, the lowest in the region.

In addition to the telephone survey, three different workshops, or visioning sessions, were held in each of the seven counties. At one workshop, participants were asked to identify their favorite places on maps of their county and the whole seven-county region. Top vote-getters in Walworth County included the Kettle Moraine State Forest and the White River State Trail. At a second visioning session, participants were asked to participate in a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of their county. Abundant water resources and farmland, as well as quality jobs, were included among the strengths of our county. Participants identified unwanted development, congestion and an unwillingness to take a risk on new ideas among the threats.

With politicians focused on the next election, I'm glad that the folks at SEWRPC are taking a long-range view of the region's future. Elected officials at all levels of government would be wise to read the Vision 2050 reports and consider the views of residents when making policy decisions.

If you're interested in making your views known on long-term land use and transportation issues, it's not too late. The next visioning session in our county is set for Tuesday, Sept. 9, at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn. You can register online at vision2050sewis.org/Vision2050.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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