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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Who's Stealing Our Land

Rural Areas Outmatched In Development Game

By Peter McKeever

Jim Rowen is right: development is devouring Waukesha County, chopping the Kettle Moraine to bits, and bearing down on Jefferson County from both directions.

These developments don’t happen in the urban areas … the land there is already gone. Instead, it is the rural areas, villages and towns that have to deal with the proposals. Developers go looking for the weakest, hoping to pick them off one by one, like a pride of lions attacking a herd of wildebeest.

How the local municipalities handle the development proposals is often as ugly as what they get to see when the development is built. Too often blinded by the promised benefits of this sacred cow called “growth”, and out-gunned, out-manned, and out-smarted by the teams of engineers, architects, money lenders, builders, realtors, highwaymen, and campaign donors, the small towns fall in line without either a serious review or attention to their own ordinances and procedures.

And when the development is done, and the rural character is gone, they don’t understand why everybody’s taxes go up to support the increased costs for schools, infrastructure, and local services. Putting 500 new homes in a community of 5,600 places huge demands on government and increases costs and taxes.

The local review and approval process is typically ripe with procedural and substantive errors and problems, often involving the failure of local government to follow public notice, open meetings and open records laws and the failure to properly apply local zoning laws and follow land use plans. The board members, the “deciders” have little experience dealing with big sprawl subdivisions complete with new lakes and mega-McMansions, office complexes, malls, and tree-lined boulevards in place of town roads and scattered farms. They much prefer to have the proposal go away, and the quickest way to accomplish that is to approve it.

Their town engineers are hired consultants, from the same firms that often do work for the developers. Local board members and plan commissioners do not have, or are unwilling to spend, funds for independent engineering reviews, environmental assessments, property tax analyses, and feasibility studies. They really have no idea what the real long-term impact will be on the place they claim to care about.

Granted, the deck is stacked in favor of the developers, but these projects can be stopped. Town and village board members too readily cede their power to reject a conditional use permit, or even to impose meaningful conditions. An application for a CUP or a variance is seen as a new version of “Let’s Make a Deal”: if the developer tweaks this and that, often things he or she was willing to give up anyway, the project is approved without dissension, with praise all around for what a boon this will be to our town.

Local boards need to listen to their community. Drop the three minute limits on how long people can speak at public hearings…residents often have good ideas. And stop limiting appearances to just those who live within the jurisdiction. Recognize that the impact of these things is regional, and people living in nearby communities have a valuable perspective too.

Local boards need to make tough decisions, even when it means severely irritating the developers. After all, those developers are like tourists, they come and then they go. The difference is that instead of spending money, they take the money, and too often, the heart, out of the place they came to visit. They are in it for the money, not the community.

And perhaps worst of all, local boards approve these disasters out of fear of getting sued. Private property rights and all that, ignoring that we have a long tradition of limiting the impact an individual property owner can have on the neighborhood. A little backbone is in order: The land, the environment, the rural qualities and character that they cherish is lost to fear. There are many fates worse than a lawsuit, such as paving over the landscape.

And when a handful of local residents happen to hear about the proposal, (too often it is rushed through quietly, with little public notice), they are overwhelmed, discouraged, and demoralized. They don’t know where to start, other than with a faith that they are right. Community opposition is poorly organized, lacking experienced leadership, strategies, and the resources to retain badly needed professional help, even at reduced rates and even if they can find a qualified law firm willing to help.

A political strategy has to accompany a legal strategy to defeat these proposals: when the local board members understand that they may lose their seats if they approve the project, they quickly go looking for ways to turn the projects down. Lawyers can help local groups make sure the procedures are open and fair, and the standards applied fairly, but local residents have to treat it as a campaign, complete with flyers, buttons, yard signs, get out the vote efforts, and petitions, to say nothing of packing the hall at public hearings and meetings.

Usually the local groups are all alone; many statewide groups worry about policy (and ignore judicial elections) instead of fighting the site-based battles where the sprawl is defeated or wins. The land is nibbled away deal by deal, like a death by a thousand cuts. Project after project is approved. If the local battles are not fought and won, the land is lost, regardless of the policies and successes reported and measured in column inches.

And as the landscape is lost as if nibbled to death by ducks, lost by even well-meaning town and villages boards, so is confidence and faith in government and democracy.

-- McKeever is a Madison attorney.

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