As part of its coverage of the campaign for Dane County executive, Isthmus is asking candidates a series of questions about governance. Spencer Zimmerman did not respond.
Should Dane County attempt to restrict development and encourage land preservation and if so, how should it go about doing this? Should the county be buying undeveloped land in order to preserve it?
Despite what Scott Walker might tell you, development and preservation are not mutually exclusive. Preservation is not the enemy of development. I proved this last year when I led the effort to legalize the transfer of development rights (TDR). Farmers can now sell the right to develop their land, but the actual development happens closer to established cities and villages. This allows farmers to realize the value of the land they own, while at the same time continuing to farm and preserving both their land and their way of life.
And yes, the county should continue to buy land to expand parks and trails for people to enjoy with their families, like we did with the Ice Age trail. Dane County has a unique balance of urban, small-town and rural places, and it is up to us to preserve this. In addition, one of the few good things about the current economy is that interest rates are low, so the county can realize long-term savings by investing in land now.
Historically, Dane County has added population faster than anywhere in the state, and development is going to be a reality. We must continue to have a plan to manage our growth in a smart way that protects our environment and quality of life.
One of my strengths has always been working with diverse groups to find common ground and get the job done. As county executive I will work with all stakeholders in preservation issues across the county to reach this goal. I believe the county should continue to play a role in the process of protecting farmland, parks, and recreational areas.
Our approach toward land preservation must include transfer of development rights and purchase of development rights, and working with state and federal officials in innovative ways to secure funding for future land purchases as well as utilization of the conservation fund for land purchases.
The Stewardship Fund, one of the tools Dane County has used to purchase land in the past, and something I have fought to protect on the state level, faces an uncertain future. So we must take that into consideration with any plan as well.
Proper land use and smart growth are incredibly important to our long-term plans for Dane County and the surrounding region. Unfortunately, due to the precarious state of the economy and the threat of huge reductions in state aid, the next budget will be incredibly tight. We'll need to fight just to protect core county functions like public safety and human services, and a one-year moratorium on new land purchases may be necessary to guarantee funding for critical services. But tight budgets do not, at all, preclude us from sound and strong land use planning.
Overall, I am not in favor of restricting development just for the sake of restricting development. To get our economy back to where it needs to be, we must foster job creation wherever possible -- and that means removing unnecessary roadblocks and red tape to expand sound, environmentally-balanced development plans across the county.
We need to take a truly regional approach to growth. And while some of the broad goals of the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission encompass these priorities, we must ensure our towns, villages and cities are consistently at the table to ensure their voices are heard on all land use and development issues.
I firmly believe that growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. I serve on the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, because I care about water quality, land use, and sustainable growth and development.
From 1980 to 2000, more crop and pasture land was converted into non-developed uses (environmental corridors, wetland restoration, open space, etc.) than was developed in Dane County. In that same time period, Dane County experienced tremendous growth, adding 115,000 jobs, nearly 55,000 housing units and 103,000 residents.
Our elected leaders' have a responsibility as stewards of both our natural resources and our tax dollars. I will only support the acquisition of land for the purpose of preservation if it meets the following strict criteria:
- The purchase is fiscally responsible.
- The land is linked to a vital natural resource.
- The land is at real risk of being lost to development.
Ideally the land purchase should leverage additional, outside funding resources and serve a recreational purpose. The current practice of borrowing money to buy land and then using state or federal reimbursements to pay for county operating expenses must stop. This is an unsustainable shell game that creates a bizarre incentive to borrow more money.
The goal of holding land for the public good, for recreation, and for preservation is important and I support that. As a part of the North Mendota Parkway Committee work, we identified the natural resource areas that were worth preserving and which were important to the local community. Municipalities have spent millions of dollars on comprehensive plans that specifically address how their municipality will grow and where it will preserve land. We have agencies with stringent guidelines for developers on preserving lands with environmentally sensitive features.
Much of the undeveloped land the county purchased was already protected by existing local ordinances and state statutes. The county consistently pays a higher than market price for the land it purchases which has driven up the cost to farmers who cannot afford to buy land at those higher prices -- they can't break even or make a profit when land is so expensive. The county has a role in identifying areas for the public good and connecting natural resource areas, but its role should be limited to advising and negotiating between communities, not buying them out. The taxpayers of Dane County cannot afford that. Market demand will restrict development.