Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Small Town Papers Cover Sprawl In A Big Way

Some of the best reporting about sprawl development in southeastern Wisconsin is found in the region's small newspapers.

While they don't have the reach of the major dailies, they often cover a local building project or subdivision plan with attention and passion that convey the significance of the proposal far beyond one small community's borders.

A good example is the recent story in the Kettle Moraine Index, a Waukesha County weekly, about the impact of a development in the rural Town of Ottawa.

That town of less than 4,000 residents - - and the adjoining Village of Dousman, (population 1,600) - - is due to get a single project of 500 homes and condos, plus an artificial lake that critics say could trash a quiet spot and even ruin Larkin Lake, the natural lake that's already there.

The project is slated for 300 acres of disappeared farmland close to these important ecological features, says the Index story:

"Marlin Johnson, a Town of Ottawa resident and associate biology professor at University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, said any possible draining of Larkin Lake would mean the end of a unique and valuable wetland for vegetation and wildlife in the area. He said the sparsely populated Larkin Lake - having only three homes on it - has remained preserved in a natural condition, making it included in the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's report for natural areas and habitat protection plan for critical species.

"There are natural areas in Wisconsin designated for statewide and regional significance," said Johnson, a member of the Waukesha County Land Conservancy - which preserves environmentally significant land in Waukesha County. "Larkin Lake is designated to have local significance to the area."

Note that the regional planning commission says the property was worth preserving - - but no surprise there: Developments are chopping Waukesha County farms and the priceless Kettle Moraine to bits, including land the regional planning commission recommended as environmental corridors.

You wonder where this all will end?

Will Pabst Farm be enough for developers hoping to build major, multi-use projects on Waukesha County's dwindling open space?

Probably not: The possible Lang project creating a second downtown for Delafield south of I-94 and to the boundary of Lapham Peak State Park, is still on the drawing board.

And plans by local and state government to widen the interstate, and pipe Lake Michigan water over the subcontinental divide will make sprawl into Jefferson County inevitable.

Dane County is sprawling in all directions from Madison, too, suggesting that one heavily-paved region, stripped of farms and wetlands, will settle in with public handouts (TIF's, zoning do-overs, sewer extensions and more) from Milwaukee, to the East Towne Mall and north, following I-94 towards the Wisconsin Dells.

Grassroots groups and small newspapers in threatened communities along this concrete corridor are doing their part to raise the alarm.

But at the regional planning commission, on the county and town boards, and in the legislature, where the highway and builders' interests prevail, is anyone listening?

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