To stroll, bike or drive down the handful of two-lane roads that crisscross the town of Dunn is to step back in time. New subdivisions don't intrude on the farms and wetlands that define much of its landscape. Sandhill cranes still nest in its marshes, and full-time farmers raise hogs, dairy cattle and organic vegetables in its fields. And in a normal winter, acres of unbroken white snow stretch across fields knit with the stubble of last year's corn crop and dapple the crests of glacial hills.
During rush hour, the sound of traffic streaming down the South Beltline and U.S. Highway 14 spills over its borders. But it's nothing like Madison or the fast-growing satellite communities that surround it. With fewer than 5,500 residents on 34.4 square miles, Dunn is a rural haven in the midst of sprawling suburbia. And that's no accident.
In the 1970s, Dunn's citizens resisted the siren calls of homebuilders and mall developers and adopted a growth-averse land-use plan that won international recognition for its careful stewardship of farmland, open spaces and natural resources. Renew America, a Washington-based consortium of environmental groups, has twice bestowed awards on the town.
Thirty years later, Dunn stands alone among Dane County towns in pursuing that pastoral vision. Without question, its preservation efforts have created a kind of rural idyll within the shadow of Madison. But it's an idyll very much under siege.
The town of Dunn now finds itself in a burgeoning metro area, and the sprawl that its citizens have worked to keep at bay for three decades seems poised to spring across the town borders.
Longtime town chair Ed Minihan says Dunn has tried to enlighten its neighbors about the upside of preserving open space and Dane County's rural character for the next generation. But other than the city of Madison, no one seems to be listening.
'They're very much captives of the whole builder, developer, Realtor community,' Minihan says of Dunn's neighboring municipalities.
Trouble in paradise
Everywhere Minihan looks he sees danger. Both the village of Oregon and the city of Stoughton include annexations of Dunn land in their long-range 'Smart Growth' development plans. Stoughton, for example, has approved a new neighborhood anchored by a hulking Wal-Mart superstore on Dunn's southern flank.
On Dunn's western flank, Fitchburg is mulling dense development for its Northeast Neighborhood plan (1,100 residences, an office park, a new U.S. 14 interchange and perhaps even a sprinkling of big-box retail) on what is now cornfields and forestland. To the southeast, the village of McFarland has already built up to its Yahara River border with Dunn.
The American Transmission Co., meanwhile, is set to string new high-voltage power lines from Verona to Middleton, and one of the proposed routes would run next to the existing high-voltage lines that cut through Dunn's protected wetlands.
Then there's the possibility that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will decide to place a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility devoted to the study of deadly animal pathogens like bird flu, anthrax and SARS on 60 acres of Dunn land held by UW-Madison's Kegonsa Research Facility, including a Brobdingnagian 11-acre building.
Finally, a citizens' group is pushing the state Department of Transportation to support a so-called South Beltline reliever through part of Dunn.
Any one of these incursions could degrade Dunn's rural feel and, worse, threaten its natural resources. County Board chair Scott McDonell says Dunn attracts every sort of development proposal because the land is open and relatively cheap.
McDonell credits the resolve of town residents in sticking to their plan 'in the face of intense development pressures.' He adds, 'They're pretty much out there by themselves.'
Fending off development hasn't been easy, says Minihan, who was first elected town chair in 1979. The town has had few allies, he says, in trying to preserve its farms and keep open space undisturbed. The town of Fitchburg, once Dunn's rural twin, incorporated as a city in the early 1980s and now has more than 20,000 residents. Conversely, Dunn's growth slowed to a crawl, and its population actually decreased between 1990 and 2000.
Sensing their vulnerability, because towns have far fewer powers than cities or villages, Dunn residents voted in 1996 to adopt a new program to protect their rural splendor: an emerging land-use practice called Purchase of Development Rights, or PDR.
PDR involves the town buying the development rights on farmland and other open space and placing a conservation easement on the property. The farmers and other owners retain their land, but they're barred in perpetuity from turning their fields into strip malls, McMansions and gated golf-course communities.
To date, 2,661 acres of Dunn's 10,000-plus acres of undeveloped open space and farmland have been protected, at a cost of $5.5 million paid to the landowners. Federal, state and county grants have covered about 55% of the tab; the remainder came from town coffers. (Dunn property holders pay 50 cents on each $1,000 of equalized value to finance the program.)
Dunn's PDR program was a first for Wisconsin. As Minihan tells it, town residents took their cue from Purchase of Developments Rights efforts on the East Coast, where the clash between growing metro areas and their rural outskirts has a longer history.
'When we were looking into PDR, we checked with communities that had done this,' says Minihan. 'The story that we got was: 'Don't wait. Don't wait for somebody else to do it. Don't wait for the feds, don't wait for the state, don't even wait for the county. Do it now.' So we did. People saw the value.'
The beauty of PDR is that it recognizes that farmers often rely on the sale of their farms for financing their retirements. Under the PDR program, farmers looking to retire could realize some of the increased value of their holdings without selling out to developers. With the purchase of those development rights, some of Dunn's rural character was preserved, and no one was forced to take a vow of poverty for it.
Not everyone in town is an environmentalist, notes Dunn land-use manager Renee Lauber, and not everyone who sells development rights does so altruistically. 'There's definitely been a change over the years in the people who are applying for the PDR program,' she says. 'Initially, it was people with a very strong conservation ethic who felt strongly about their farm, and that they wanted that land protected.'
This made arranging some of the early deals easy, because 'this is what they wanted to do, and the money was just a nice bonus.' But then Lauber saw 'a real shift into people who were really doing it pretty much just for the money. And those deals were quite a bit different to negotiate.'
Either way, that's okay. No matter how the town government changes in the years to come ' even if it's annexed into oblivion by avaricious neighbors ' those legal protections against development will remain in PDR land, potentially forever.
Minihan sees this as a potential 'poison pill' that could fend off annexation. 'Nobody's going to want to annex land that they can't do anything with and must remain open,' he says. 'And that holds true for things like high-tension lines and other things, too.'
Cal DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at UW-Madison and a town activist for more than 30 years, muses that the PDR program has worked so well that someday the wetlands behind his home could support the endangered whooping cranes that are being taught to migrate between Wisconsin and Texas. That would be a boon for birdwatchers around the world ' and one more sign of the importance of Dunn's land ethic.
The problem, he says, is that Dunn's remarkable land stewardship faces a looming threat from Fitchburg's Northeast Neighborhood proposal. DeWitt, a member of the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition, warns that the new wells that will service the hundreds of new residences, offices and retail outlets could have a dire effect on the groundwater system that feeds the Lake Waubesa basin.
Fitchburg officials question whether the land is prime farmland and note that it has been clearly earmarked for urban expansion since the mid-1980s. But DeWitt's voice rises with alarm as he describes how the Northeast Neighborhood's water demands and the runoff from acres of lawns and landscaping would affect the lower two-thirds of Lake Waubesa, much of which is within Dunn's borders.
The lake wouldn't just suffer from water loss and pollution, he predicts. It would be severely degraded: 'Phosphorus would come in, the spring water would be turned off, and this entire southern two-thirds would putrefy and become a massive cesspool of algae.'
Plus there would be added traffic. Fitchburg wants a new Highway 14 interchange built to accommodate the new commuters and shoppers. DeWitt fears that traffic will be diverted to Dunn's rural two-lane roads. With Lake Waubesa and the Nine Springs E-Way preventing easy access to Madison, he warns that the traffic will wind up flowing through the county's Lake Farm Park and the soon-to-open Capital Springs Centennial State Park.
So what's the solution? DeWitt's group wants to see Fitchburg's Northeast Neighborhood devoted to small organic farms. The crown jewel of this green solution would be a school of organic farming.
'It's a historically important moment,' says vegetable farmer Butch Powell. 'We have a way to not only protect all of Dunn's preservation work but to positively embellish the urban area by providing high-quality, locally produced fresh produce. And we know that there's a big demand in Madison, a demand that's growing.'
A hog farmer's view
Bob Uphoff, whose family has farmed in Dunn since 1866, understands Fitchburg's desire to keep its development plans moving forward. But he's also wary of big urbanizing projects like the Northeast Neighborhood, which partially abuts his land. Uphoff raises purebred Berkshire hogs by the thousands, and he sells the bulk of the high-quality pork to Japan.
It's a profitable business. The last thing he needs is a suburban subdivision downwind from his farm. 'When we start spreading manure, are they going to like the smell?' he wonders. 'I don't know. Odor, you just can't shut that down with a fence. You can't control which way the wind shifts.'
Future homebuyers might think they're in the city of Fitchburg, he suggests, 'but on the other side of the street there's agriculture, and it's going to stay agriculture forever.' Indeed, some of Uphoff's acreage is PDR-protected.
Uphoff is all for Dunn talking with other municipalities bent on urbanization. But he doesn't think Dunn should bow to their development goals. If anything, they should be more respectful of their rural neighbor: 'Just because we're keeping our land in open space with a PDR program doesn't mean it's there for their use as well.'
The way it was
On a warm winter's day, you can still bisect the middle of the town on Schneider Road and not pass a soul. A few distressed crows or a chevron of honking Canada geese might break the silence. More often than not, the only sound you'll hear is the wind rattling the last few dead leaves on a skeletal oak tree. And if the wind is right, the smell of manure might flare your nostrils.
This is the way much of Dane County used to be. There are no lifestyle-defining coffee shops, no parking lots pushing up against fields that will give way to a Target or Menard's next year or the year after. Frankly, at first glance, many city folks in search of more chances to flick out their credit cards would likely find it a dull, lonely place.
But they'd be wise to look again. As Dane County witnesses developers cutting up the old rural landscape of Fitchburg and Stoughton and Middleton and Verona and Sun Prairie, Dunn's working farms and open spaces are becoming ever more precious.
The town will survive if the American Transmission Co. runs more power lines through its wetlands or Fitchburg builds a thousand houses a few hundred yards away from Bob Uphoff's pig farm. But it won't be quite the rural haven it once was. That won't be the fault of the people in the town of Dunn. They've fought the good fight.
Trouble is, they're fighting it alone.