How smart is your growth?

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Growth can be fast or slow, booming or lagging.

But can it be smart?

The state of Wisconsin thinks so. In fact, it demands it.

The state’s “Smart Growth” initiative, passed in 1999, requires all municipalities to create a Smart Growth, or comprehensive, plan by Jan. 1, 2010. The plans will guide development in the state through 2035.

It might sound like a boring engineering exercise, but community growth affects many facets of residents’ lives, planners say—from where you ride your bike to what kind of jobs are available to how much farmland surrounds your home.

So to be truly smart, a growth plan must include participation from professionals, officials and everyday residents, they say.

To that end, here’s some things you should know about the Smart Growth planning process.

Q: What is Smart Growth?

A: Smart Growth is “the whole concept of planning for future growth of the cities and villages, where to put increasing population, in a well-thought-out, smart way,” Rock County planner Mary Robb said.

According to the state legislation, Smart Growth principles include:

-- directing development toward existing communities.

-- variety in transportation choices.

-- protection of natural areas and farmland.

-- cost-effective development.

-- preservation of cultural, historic and archaeological sites.

-- revitalizing main streets and building community identity.

-- affordable housing for people of all income levels.

-- creation of job opportunities.

Q: Why should I care?

A: Planners rely on public input as they create their comprehensive plans, but it’s often hard to draw residents into the conversation, Robb said.

People aren’t always willing to give up an evening to talk about future development, but they should care about maintaining the quality of life in Rock County, she said.

“People who live outside the urban boundaries have stated in surveys they like the rural atmosphere; they like a slower, quieter way of life, and they want to retain, maintain, that lifestyle,” she said.

Urban residents should care too, said Brad Cantrell, Janesville community development manager.

The plan will look at things Janesville residents care about, such as where parks and bike trails go and whether retail stores should be scattered throughout neighborhoods or clustered in one place, he said.

Planners also will discuss whether Janesville should try to be a bedroom community for Rockford and Madison or if it should try to create more jobs in the city for people who live here, Cantrell said.

Q: How can I get involved?

The Smart Growth law mandates public participation all the way through the process. The law requires communities to focus on nine areas, such as utilities, land use, housing and economic development.

While some municipalities have finished their plans, others have barely started.

Both Rock County and Janesville are in the middle of the process, and planners for both say it’s not too late to get involved. The city and county will hold several more meetings during the planning process and public hearings on the plans once they’re done.

The county’s next meeting, Nov. 8, will discuss agriculture, transportation and utilities.

Check with your local municipality to learn about upcoming planning meetings.

Q: How rigid are the plans?

A: State law requires any development decisions after 2010 to fit in a community’s Smart Growth plan, but the plans aren’t set in stone. Future government boards can amend the plans as new circumstances arise.

How closely a community follows its plans probably will depend on its elected officials, said Carrie Houston, a Rock County planner. Officials can pass ordinances to reinforce the plans, but there probably still will be some flexibility.

“There’s always new situations that you don’t foresee … but with the amount of work we’re putting in and the amount of public comment, it wouldn’t be right to throw it all away,” she said.

The city of Evansville finished its Smart Growth plan in 2005 and already has made several amendments, said city planner Tim Schwecke. He sees the plan as a “living document” that offers a “fuzzy picture” of the future.

“It certainly provides some direction, some vision for the community,” he said, but “it’s not to be written once and not ever looked at again for the next 20 years.”

Last updated: 10:27 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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