Despite a talented and hardworking staff and a good bunch of citizen commissioners, the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission is in a world of hurt these days. There are even calls for its elimination. I don't think that would be smart for the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, though. Let's mend it, not end it.
I have a long history with the commission. I was a commissioner on the old Dane County RPC when I was a county supervisor. I fought against the elimination of it when I was executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. As mayor, I was active in and present at the creation of the new Capital Area RPC, and I sat on the commission's Budget and Personnel Committee.
With that history, let me suggest three things that are needed to improve regional planning in Dane County.
First, the commission has been struggling with inadequate budgets and staff for years. The interim director, Kamran Mesbah, has been doing yeoman's service for a couple of years, but he wants to be a planner, not an administrator. Yet there haven't been the resources to hire a permanent director. The fairest way to provide these resources is through the county property tax levy, because the benefits of regional planning are for everyone in the county, not just those in cities and villages. Now, if we're going to increase the county levy for the RPC (it's already embedded in that levy) than we probably have to allow the county to fully run the commission as well. That's okay by me.
Second, the law setting up Capital Area RPC is deeply flawed because it only allows the commission to look at water quality impacts of new development areas within the boundaries of cities and villages. Urban service extensions (basically, the approval to provide urban sewer and water service to a given area) often get approved, not because commissioners necessarily think they're wise, but because within the narrow issue of water quality standards, new development is often better then the farmland it replaces.
But what about sprawl, transportation impacts and the loss of farmland? The commission can't use those to trump the water quality test. I think some of us were hoping that water quality would be a good proxy for those other things, but that's not how it has worked out in some cases. So, the law should be changed to allow the RPC to look at these other issues.
Third, as noted above, the commission can only have a say in the growth of cities and villages -- exactly where we want development to take place. For the most part, while I would agree that some of the urban service area growth has been excessive, growth in cities and villages is far preferable to the widely scattered growth that takes place in rural areas outside of the RPC's jurisdiction. The real threat to the environment in Dane County is not so much what happens in cities and villages, but what's going on outside of them.
Anyway, it's a fascinating debate and you can join in by attending the CARPC Planning Conference, "Collaboration & Connections: Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities" this Thursday and Friday, October 27-28 at the Alliant Energy Center. Everyone is welcome, registration is only $30 and you get a free lunch. You also get to hear me speak, but you don't get a discount for enduring that. It's still thirty bucks.