Thursday, March 1, 2007

Strong Conservation Message Reverberates Across Waukesha County

Late on Wednesday night, the City of Waukesha Plan Commission rejected, for a second time, a proposal to annex 334 acres in the Town of Waukesha for home and city well development southwest of the city.

Waukesha's Water Utility and Mayor Larry Nelson backed the plan as a short-term solution to the City's need for a cleaner water source; conservationists objected because the land, known as the Lathers parcel, is long-ticketed for inclusion into public property in the Vernon Marsh Wildlife Area; others balked at another costly extension of city services beyond the city's current borders. (Which some dare call "sprawl.")

The vote at the commission was 5-2.

So what's really going on?

For years in southeastern Wisconsin, and particularly in Waukesha County, planning decisions have been made by the same small group of builders, consultants and governing bodies that constitute an informal but powerful elite.

These people felt they had a monopoly on the information, on knowledge, on what was best for the region, and plans would get announced, then fast-tracked, more or less as done deals.

Annexation-after-annexation has been sought by developers, goosed along by consultants and adopted by governments, too often with relatively less regard for the long-term consequences beyond the elites' bottom lines.

So, year-after-year, open space has dwindled. Farms have been subdivided for homes, businesses and malls- - including the massive, 1,500-acre Pabst Farms that has profound ecological significance for the region because the water supply beneath it was replenished by rain and snow that filtered through the land.

The development also has brought more traffic throughout the County. Once-small towns are getting the Royal Treatment from cooperative state highway planners with wide bypasses and new interchanges.

Municipal borders have been extended. Even the environmental corridors recommended as buffers by the regional planning commission have been encroached upon as business-as-usual for decades.

But the process is not sustainable and has begun to stall under the weight of its own contradictions.

As the City of Waukesha slowly faced up to its water supply issues, and began campaigning for diverted Lake Michigan water as its preferred solution, it argued it could not return that water for treatment to the lake because its current disposal path - - the Fox River - - maintained water levels in the valuable Vernon Marsh.

Then it turned around and negotiated a deal with a developer to build on the Lathers parcel - - land at the edge of, and earmarked for, the Vernon Marsh - - in exchange for the right to withdraw three million gallons a day from groundwater also at the edge of the Marsh.

Even though the amount of land for homes was reduced in the version voted down by the Plan Commission, does building so close to the Marsh, and drawing up water from shallow wells nearby, make sense?

Not according to the City's planning staff, which did not support the plan, nor for the second time to the Plan Commission, and, once already, to the Waukesha City Council.

These days, a reaction like that is called pushback. It's not partisan in Waukesha. It's widespread. Maybe rejecting the Lathers annexation is the tipping point against sprawl in Waukesha County, making conservation welcomed as mainstream throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Waukesha still has water supply options. It can negotiate the purchase from the developer of an easement of perhaps four or five of the acres for the well sites, thereby leaving 99% of the land intact.

Studies may indicate that removing the water that Waukesha wants, or a smaller amount, or changing the well site locations, may not harm the Vernon Marsh. I'm not sure. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others will eventually decide. Certainly the Town of Waukesha has a say in the decision, too.

Time will tell.

Waukesha has implemented a solid water conservation plan. Give it a chance, along with changes in water rates, and see if all these modifications substantially reduce the amount of water that the City of Waukesha says it needs long-term.

And the plan can be substantially expanded with additional technologies and goals, adding to the water savings that, in turn, minimize the need for larger volumes of water in the coming years.

And Waukesha needs to get behind the adoption of the amended Great Lakes Compact, because a) it is the right thing from a conservation perspective to do for the entire Great Lakes region, and b) if Waukesha ever wants a justifiable application for Great Lakes water to be approved by the other Great Lakes states, Waukesha can't go to those states for permission having been the city in the eight-state region that fought, tried to water down, or otherwise compromise the agreement.

The battle over the parcel near the Vernon Marsh also tells the City and County of Waukesha, as well as the regional planning commission that people want conservation made a genuine priority.

Not a dollop of land here and a fake wetlands added there, but putting preservation of remaining open lands at the top of the list.

Conservation for the benefit of the public, not the narrow interests of developers, builders and their allies at consulting firms.

1 comment:

chide said...

Right.. supporting the compact and then turning right around to ask for a waiver will surely do the trick. I'm sure all the other states would see the consistency in that and jump at the chance to reward Waukesha by allowing the city to do exactly what the compact is intended to disallow. As a reward for the city's largely irrelevant support, of course.