During the most persistent economic downturn in decades, would the Dane County executive deliberately obstruct environmentally responsible development that creates hundreds of new jobs? If you think the answer is "never," consider the recent experience of the city of Verona.
For more than six years, Verona has been trying to develop a 265-acre parcel of land. Doing so requires an extension of the city's "urban service area," which in turn is needed before sewer lines can be extended to new homes and offices. The Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, or CARPC, reviews such extensions to ensure that they do not harm water quality, which is certainly relevant for this particular land since it's located between the Sugar River and Badger Mill Creek. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has ultimate authority over approving urban service area extensions, but in practice it rarely second guesses CARPC recommendations.
In early 2006, CARPC expressed concern that water runoff from the proposed development (which includes new homes and a new facility for Dean Health) would affect both the river and creek. Verona agreed to hire an environmental consulting firm at its own expense to review development options. After a two-year study, the firm concluded that if 90% of runoff was kept "on-site" and therefore out of the waterways, the development would not only maintain current water quality but improve it. This represented a more demanding water runoff standard than the state's customary 60%, but Verona adopted it in its application to CARPC in mid-2008.
CARPC staff members still resisted the application but, in October 2009, reached a compromise with Verona in which the matter was referred to a 25-member expert panel that included several UW professors and DNR division leaders. The panel's report six months later supported the consultant's recommendation. This expert seal of approval led CARPC staff to recommend approval, and, at the next meeting in April 2010, CARPC board members voted six to three in favor of the extension. However, eight yes votes are required to approve such extensions, and four of the 13 members were absent from the meeting, so another vote was scheduled for CARPC's meeting the following month.
Enter Kathleen Falk. In an unprecedented move, the ex-county executive requested and was granted permission to address CARPC at the May meeting. Without mentioning any of the scientific analysis, she nevertheless expressed strong opposition to the extension and warned CARPC that approving it "will be a fatal mistake." To remove any doubt about what she meant, Falk went on to say that voting yes on the application would show that county taxpayers are wasting their money on CARPC and would force her to withdraw her financial support of the agency.
Don Corleone would have stroked his chin and cracked a wry smile at this Cheesehead version of making someone an offer they can't refuse. Vote any way you like, CARPC members, just don't come crying to me when you find out your jobs are gone.
The threat worked: Two CARPC members who previously voted yes switched to no. The final vote was six to six, and Verona's application was rejected again.
The city appealed this decision to the DNR, which in August 2011 sent a letter to CARPC saying that the relevant section of the legal code "does not support CARPC's denial of the amendment request." The DNR therefore referred the matter back to CARPC and all but demanded approval.
In the meantime, Joe Parisi had become county executive after Kathleen Falk unexpectedly resigned in late 2010 (full disclosure: I was Eileen Bruskewitz's treasurer when she ran for county executive in 2011 and was defeated by Parisi). The new executive wrote to CARPC and asked them to deny the application, echoing Kathleen Falk in sotto voce about the possibility of eliminating their funding if the application was approved. In not one but two subsequent votes, CARPC again failed to approve the extension.
In January of this year, the DNR took the rare step of overruling CARPC and granting initial approval of Verona's application. The DNR will have a public hearing on the issue on Feb. 16, but given the overwhelming scientific consensus and the DNR's previous communications to CARPC, it's difficult to believe that final approval will be denied.
So why did two county executives, one of whom ran for office on an economic development platform, fight so hard to prevent an environmentally sound project that would have created good, high-paying jobs in the county? You could call it the Farmland Mystique, where gentle pastoral landscapes are pure and virtuous but become tainted when you build anything on them. This despite the fact that these are farms, which means the land is already developed and being used for economic purposes, not virgin wilderness.
Nevertheless, this sorry episode shows that the BANANA principle - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything - is alive and well. Public officials like Falk, Parisi and others are ready to ignore science and sacrifice economic development simply to protect the romantic fiction that farms are undeveloped. In addition to being reactionary (for what good progressive is opposed to using science to inform public policy?), BANANA is an attempt to get farmland preservation on the cheap. If the county wants to preserve Verona's farms, it should use tax revenues to purchase them, not pressure regulatory bodies to prevent environmentally responsible development.
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.