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City council OKs Smart Growth plan

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Stacy Vogel
March 10, 2009
— The public might be split on Janesville's comprehensive plan, but the city council was almost unanimous in its approval Monday night.

The approval followed more than two years of work from city staff, the plan commission and a consulting firm and more than two hours of discussion Monday among residents and council members.


Wisconsin statute requires all municipalities to enact 20-year comprehensive, or Smart Growth, plans by the end of 2009. The council approved the plan 6-1 with Tom McDonald opposed.


McDonald and several speakers Monday worried that the plan will eat up valuable farmland.


The plan, created with the help of consulting firm Vandewalle & Associates, targets nearly 10,000 acres for future development, although 1,600 acres are vacant spots within existing city limits, said Brad Cantrell, community development director.


About 60 percent of the remaining land is north and east of the city, with 40 percent to the south and west, according to the ordinance. The plan applies "long-term, logical growth boundaries" such as the South Highway 11 Bypass, Henke Road and the city of Milton.


The farmland surrounding the city is too precious to develop, some speakers said.


"It is some of the most fertile farmland in the entire planet," said farmer Marion Barlass, 6145 County A, Janesville. "I don't want my children not to be able to produce food that's going to be able to feed the world."


But developers and city officials said growth is inevitable in Janesville, and they need guidelines to make sure the growth is logical.


Even though the city has lost employers, it's still in a growth corridor near Chicago and Milwaukee, council member Yuri Rashkin said.


"We need to be prepared for that growth," he said. "We can't stumble into it blindly."


Officials said the plan is just a guide and does not force farmers to give up their land. Future city councils and market forces will determine how closely the city follows the plan, they said.


For the farmland to be developed, a number of steps have to be taken, officials said. The farmer has to sell his or her land to a developer. The city has to vote to annex, rezone and divide the property.


Several developers spoke in favor of the plan. They said the city shouldn't tie future councils' hands and landowners should have the right to do what they want with their property.


But other speakers said allowing developers to build all around a farm forces that farm out of existence.


"If everyone around you is being developed, that's pretty much the same as being forced to sell your land," Barlass said.


City staff addressed concerns about farmland by recommending that the council eliminate an "urban reserve designation" from the map, but the council denied the recommendation.


McDonald, chairman of the sustainability committee, introduced several amendments aimed at preserving farmland and making the plan more environmentally friendly, including limiting the city's east-side growth to where its sewer service already extends. The amendments failed.


Other council members said the plan balances the need for development and farmland preservation.


"No matter what we do here tonight, the growth, any growth from outside our corporate city limits now, is going to be decided by future councils, future plan commissions," George Brunner said. "We have a good plan. It's there. It's a guideline."


Ag secretary questions comprehensive plan

A Wisconsin department head questioned Janesville's comprehensive plan, especially the inclusion of nearly 10,000 acres for new development, in a letter to the city last week.


Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, asked City Manager Eric Levitt in a letter dated March 4 to carefully consider the plan.


"As you know, the prairie soils in this area are some of the most productive agricultural soils in the world," Nilsestuen wrote. "Farmland with such value should not be considered for non-agricultural uses without very careful consideration."


Nilsestuen praised some elements of the plan, including recommendations to explore bio-based production and promote the processing and distribution of specialty foods.


"But I must ask if the conversion of 9,800 acres of farmland, even over a 20-year period, is efficient development," he wrote. "Clearly, the loss of some of Wisconsin's most productive farmland is neither efficient nor appropriate in terms of agricultural development or sustainable land use


"I am therefore respectfully asking the city to consider very carefully the growth and development projections and how these projections might impact one of Wisconsin's most important natural and economic resource areas."



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