City limits carved in stone? Heavy-handed public transportation mandates? Wisconsin’s controversial comprehensive planning law is relatively innocuous compared to the accusations critics have leveled at it this year during an ongoing repeal effort.
Property rights activist Randal O’Toole calls smart growth “painful.” He equates Wisconsin’s law with Portland’s smart growth plan which, he claims in an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, has made housing less affordable, created traffic congestion and air pollution, and raised taxes and unemployment.
Republican representatives say comprehensive planning is “a gun to the head of the communities,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of the environmental organization 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He believes that this violent analogy shows “an appalling lack of knowledge.”
The actual legislation is far less harsh than its detractors claim. The law requires communities to create plans that address “issues and opportunities, housing, transportation, utilities and community facilities, land use, agricultural, natural and cultural resources, economic development, and intergovernmental cooperation” by 2010. The program provides a limited amount of grant funding – $2 million per year.
The competition for state money has become more intense as the end of the planning period approaches. “There should be two times as much funding as there is now,” said Kevin Pomeroy, planning director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
Hiniker and Pomeroy would like to see smart growth – complete with higher-density housing and public transportation – gain a strong foundation in Wisconsin to prevent future urban sprawl.
Critics insist that Portland housing costs shot upwards due to smart growth. In fact, Pomeroy says, Portland became expensive because it’s “a desirable place to live.” Pomeroy maintains that the evidence doesn’t suppport claims of traffic gridlock due to smart growth.
Although the subtext of the law may read “smart growth,” there are currently no mandates that specify how the communities will plan. “They can adopt a ‘dumb growth’ principle,” Hiniker quipped. In fact, some communities have decided in favor of allowing urban sprawl. Under the existing law, they are free to do so.
The versatility of the law is due to both the diversity of Wisconsin communities it affects and the bipartisan nature of the group that drafted it. Under the Thompson administration, environmentalists, realtors, builders, cities, towns, and planners worked together for nine months to develop the legislation.
For years before the comprehensive planning law, land use in Wisconsin was a topic of debate. Local residents looked at issues “too myopically,” said Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors’ Association. Communities united only to oppose large construction projects, such as Wal-Marts, that would occupy valuable farmland. So stakeholders agreed to sit down together and create a planning framework to resolve disputes and reduce the costs associated with conflicting land uses.
Perhaps due to its flexibility and bipartisan origins, comprehensive planning has been “wildly popular,” says State Representative Mark Pocan (D-Madison). Pocan says that all of the constituents’ comments he has received have been positive. He adds that the program, by providing a framework for future development, can reduce taxes – an important selling point in Wisconsin, where state budgets have become the focus of intense debate.
The debate was surprisingly short on May 11, 2005, when State Representative Dan Meyer (R-Eagle River), moved to repeal the statute and eliminate the grants program, despite its low cost compared to other state programs. By this time, many communities had already gone through the comprehensive planning process. But the climate in the legislature had changed, and the support for “smart growth” eroded rapidly.
In a series of vetoes to preserve environmental legislation, Governor Jim Doyle removed the repeal from the state budget. “Smart Growth is not a mandate from Madison,” Doyle stated emphatically, calling the motion to repeal the statute “senseless.” “It’s business and environmental leaders coming together to forge consensus.”
Doyle views the comprehensive planning program as a popular grass-roots initiative which may preserve wetlands and other sensitive habitat. Many wetlands in Wisconsin have disappeared, replaced by subdivisions and commercial strips. Developers create artificial wetlands, but environmentalists point out those are often far inferior to the original.
Though the repeal was vetoed, the effort to end comprehensive planning is not over. Rep. Mary Williams (R-Medford) e-mailed her fellow legislators on August 16, calling the law a “‘from the top down’ command. If a community feels the need to plan, they will,” she added, inviting her colleagues to cosponsor a new bill.
Hiniker believes that since the law was passed, legislators have become more polarized and are debating on the basis of politics rather than policy. “The extremists are in control,” he said. He explained that since Republican and Democratic seats are relatively “safe,” elected officials are forced to appeal to more extreme voters to increase turnout at the primaries. He said this is a nationwide problem that has gotten worse in recent years.
“These people link the program to a secret agenda of the UN,” Hiniker says. He describes the small number of people vigorously opposed to smart growth as having “a pathological problem.” For example, many believe that stop signs have UN invasion route codes hidden on their backs.
O’Toole’s Web site, americandreamcoalition.org, seeks to defend “homeownership, mobility and freedom” by giving Americans freedom to choose their use of property and their mode of transportation. It also claims that Wal-Mart benefits communities by lowering prices, that the United States is wealthy due to its high rates of home ownership and car use, and that housing for low-income people should not receive government subsidies.
Linda Smith of Kenosha County – an area that is under pressure from development – told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she was upset with smart growth because she was not included in comprehensive planning discussions that affected her property. Smith’s property was placed in a “do not develop” enviromental area by the local planning committee without her knowledge. After hiring a planner and organizing opposition, Smith succeeded in changing the rule. The compromise confined the “environmental zones” to wetland areas. Local planners maintain that all area residents were sent invitations to participate in the process – invitations that Smith said she never received.
Larson has spoken with property rights activists and feels that they are “not necessarily extreme. Generally, they’re concerned the government is going to affect… property value,” he explained. He described the activists as feeling “shut out of the process,” saying this is due to lack of public input in land use decision making in general – not to any problems with smart growth. Comprehensive planning has become the scapegoat for people discontented about a general lack of community input.
Wisconsin public notice requirements are outdated, Larson said. In Wisconsin, public notices are usually posted in a special section in newspapers, or at city halls. These sources are no longer effective means of reaching citizens who will be affected by land use decisions. Larson suggested e-mail as an alternative method of informing property owners about the planning process.
“For all the talk about democracy,” adds Lisa MacKinnon, policy director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, “people… would like to maintain the status quo.” Prior to comprehensive planning, citizens were routinely excluded from decision making.
One of the most frequent citizen calls 1000 Friends of Wisconsin receives, MacKinnon said, is about town boards throwing out a comprehensive plan. Community members either organize a collective response or make their feelings known at the next election.
As the battle over the future of comprehensive planning continues, MacKinnon and Hiniker reflected on their experiences. “Being able to have a diverse group of interests… together [is] really important for continuing long term support,” said MacKinnon.
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