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Towns face new challenges: Development and planning strain resources

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Stacy Vogel
February 17, 2008

For the town of Magnolia, calling in experts was the key.


For the town of Union, a committee of residents helped put the pieces together.


And the town of Delavan thinks a town planner might be the answer to future development issues.


Times certainly have changed for town boards in southern Wisconsin.


As people spill out from the cities and suburbs into rural townships, suddenly towns find themselves dealing with development issues they’ve never seen before: large-scale commercial farms, wind farms and huge residential developments.


“There’s no question (towns) are facing challenges that are different than they faced 20 years ago,” said Scott Heinig, Rock County director of planning and development.


“The growth in urban areas such as the city of Janesville is certainly having effects on towns such as the town of Janesville, the town of Harmony, Milton.”


Meanwhile, new business models such as 1,000-animal dairy operations and wind farms are knocking on towns’ doors.


Development issues can strain town boards, which often have limited staff and limited experience in planning and development.


When the town of Union wanted to create an ordinance about commercial wind farms, it turned to its own residents for help.


EcoEnergy proposed placing three 397-foot wind turbines in the township. A study committee appointed by the town met weekly for months, pouring over thousands of pages of documents and visiting wind farms before releasing a draft ordinance two weeks ago.


Though the ordinance has generated controversy, Union Town Chairman Kendall Schneider thinks the committee of residents was the way to go, he said. The committee members learned a lot of background material, leaving the board free to address other town issues.


“Having them do the ordinance saved a lot of committee time,” Schneider said.


The town of Magnolia went to experts when trying to determine the standards for Larson Acres, Rock County’s largest dairy farm. The town board spoke to a hydrologist and other experts, including several from UW-Madison, to learn about the environmental effects of the farm, Supervisor Dave Olsen said.


Controversy remains in that issue as well, as the town and residents continue to battle the state in court over proposed restrictions.


Such controversies might be new to town boards, but to some extent they’re just replacing old issues, said Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.


Today, it might be large residential developments or commercial farms, but in the 1980s it was landfills and gravel pits that had town officials scratching their heads, he said.


But he admitted land use issues have come to the forefront for towns in recent years.


“When you talk about land use issues, maybe land use issues as a whole have increased because there’s a limited amount of land and we’ve got more people,” he said.


On the other hand, some towns have been dealing with land use and development issues for years, he said.


Take the town of Beloit. It has been dealing with residential and business development since the 1950s, when a new Alliant Energy power plant spurred development, said Bob Museus, town administrator.


Nowadays, the town of Beloit operates more like a city or village: It has its own police department and fire department in addition to four full-time staff members, including Museus.


“If you have people working for you and they get you information, you’ll make better decisions,” he said. “You’ll gain from the experience and knowledge of people working for you.”


Wayne Polzin, chairman of the town of Delavan in Walworth County, thinks it might be time for his town to employ a planner of its own.


The town struggled with the complexities of a proposed residential complex that would have included thousands of housing units in 2006 and 2007.


Although Polzin—who was not chairman at the time—opposed the proposed Sho-Deen development, he thought the town could have benefited from a professional planner to advise the town on school, storm water, road and other infrastructure issues involved with the plan.


“After all, we are not experts at developing, nor are we engineers,” he said.


Polzin thinks the issue of a town planner will come up again in Delavan soon.


“What we are elected for is to see that the town is developed properly and so on,” he said. “Doesn’t mean that we have to do it.”



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