Jerome Esser grows corn, beans and alfalfa on a farm in Cross Plains that's been in the family for 113 years. Over the past decade and a half, he's watched in frustration as newcomers have moved into this rural community in western Dane County and tried to change it.
"They're the NIMBYs and CAVEs - Not In My Backyarders and Citizens Against Virtually Everything," he says. "This town was great before they came. Now the newcomers want many of the things changed that made it great."
The new arrivals buy up land "that our forefathers cleared for farmland," then plant trees and treat it like a city backyard. But when a development proposal comes up, like the recent application from Middleton developer Janice Faga, the same people "try to build a wall to keep it out," says Esser. "That didn't work in Berlin, China or on the Mexican border, and it's not going to work here."
Essex doesn't particularly favor Faga's proposal for a subdivision on 337 acres that includes a critical link in the national Ice Age Trail. But he objects even more to the citizens who come to town meetings concerned only about new development and not other town issues, like whether or not to buy a $120,000 tractor.
Town chairman Harold Krantz, who refers to newer arrivals as "them people," agrees: "They don't take an interest unless their ox is being gored."
The tension between longtime generational residents and newer residents - or "oldies and newbies," as some townsfolk say - is at the crux of a recall election taking place in the town of Cross Plains next Tuesday, June 17.
A group of citizens gathered nearly twice the needed number of signatures to recall town supervisor Bob Bowman, who some believe uses his position to advance a hard-right libertarian agenda. There is also broader frustration with a town leadership that critics say has goofed legal processes, held closed meetings and resisted open records requests.
Krantz, for his part, views the recall election as "a bunch of bull. I wish it would go away. It's a small minority that are just stirring up trouble, and when this gets settled, you won't see them again until something else gets controversial."
An "us vs. them" attitude was evident at the town's annual meeting in early April. When Jeff Baylis, who is opposing Bowman in the recall election, made a motion to post meeting agendas on the town's website as well as in the weekly newspaper, an older man in overalls stood up and gruffly said, "Once again, those of us without computers get left out." This sparked a chorus of both approval and exasperation. "What about those that don't read?" someone joked.
And eyes rolled whenever newer resident Jeanne Poast stood up to talk. The former village president of Black Earth later reflected, "I grew up here 40 years ago and I feel like I don't belong here because I ask questions. They are so backwards. I think they live in a box out here."
Poast urges increasing the town board from three to five members and has offered to help the town update its website and publish a newsletter. But, she says, these suggestions have been rebuffed: "You try to help them, but then you end up getting stabbed in the back."
The town of Cross Plains has experienced only moderate growth compared to, say, the nearby town of Middleton. But the clash between longtime residents and new arrivals is magnified by the town's current effort to create a comprehensive land-use plan - something all municipalities must have in place by 2010.
Recently, the town discovered that its plan commission, after a year of working on the plan, had not been legally established. The town board had to disband it and restart the process. Two-thirds of the towns in Dane County have their plans in place.
Dane County Supv. John Hendrick sees "increasingly that newer residents of the town are raising their expectations and expect a more robust planning process." Meanwhile, longtime residents want "a more informal process. And that probably worked fine when a farmer wanted to build a house for his son or daughter, but one house for the farmer's son is quite different from a 50-unit subdivision plan."
Louise Klopp, who's owned and lived on 56 acres of farmland in Cross Plains since 1970, puts it like this: "Farmers hate rules, any rule that controls their land. They hate to have new people making decisions."
Klopp sympathizes with the economic pressures farmers are under, but says, "If the farmers don't want new people out here, they shouldn't sell off their land."
Arnold Harris, a longtime Cross Plains resident with a degree in urban planning, says some longtime farm families "hold on to the idea that they should have the right to sell even extensive parts of their farmland acreage to residential developers."
But he adds that most township residents, newbies and oldies, favor development curbs. In a recent survey, 87% of residents favor maintaining "the rural character of the town," and 92% want to see the natural environment protected. [Note: Contrary to a mention in the print version of this story, Harris' analysis of the survey results is not available.]
Gerry Williams, who led the push for a recall election, says, "It's hard to get accepted in these farm communities, but I don't think our motives are that far apart."
Baylis, the challenger in next week's election, also perceives "a lot of agreement between these two groups." He blames Bowman for polarizing the town by suggesting that newer arrivals like himself "want to take your land away."
A retired research psychologist who moved to Cross Plains in the mid-'60s, Bob Bowman can pinpoint Wisconsin statutes on land-use planning down to the chapter, section and subsection. But he denies his libertarian views on property rights influence his decisions on the board.
"I don't know how I'm going to vote on the Faga petition," he says. "I've spent a whole career withholding judgment until all the data are in."
The recall election, he charges, is an attempt to capitalize on sentiment against the Faga petition. A few years ago, another "hot potatoes" issue - a debate over a cement plant - brought out enough people to oust another town board member.
Bowman says the real debate isn't between old and new so much as a "difference in ideology" between opposing factions. He says the town of Cross Plains is under growing pressure from "pro-rail, anti-development, Progressive Dane liberals." And while liberalism is supposed to be about freedom, "liberals in Madison are arguing now for regimentation over classical 'free to disagree' tradition."
Jerome Esser just wishes people would look at each development proposal with an open mind, and with regard to the farming community.
"They want all that acreage so nobody moves closer to them," he says. "People who want 35-plus acres, if they would buy nonproductive land, that would be acceptable. But I can name five parcels out here that I've raised corn, soybeans and alfalfa on - now they're subdivisions."