Dane County might force towns to comply with a farmland preservation program if they do not do so voluntarily.
The Dane County comprehensive plan sets farmland preservation as a prime goal, said Kathleen Falk, Dane County executive. Towns know the county wants them to create preservation plans to lessen the effects of new development. Towns also know there is no requirement.
The issue came to a head for Falk last week after the Dane County Board of Supervisors overrode her veto of a 10-house subdivision proposal by Springfield Highlands LLC for the town of Springfield.
Falk had vetoed the project, she said, because the town in 2007 pledged to work on a program for transferring development rights after she approved a different subdivision. The town, she said, never finished the program.
TDR programs let landowners sell their development rights in low-density areas to landowners in higher density areas. The programs are designed to encourage growth in developing areas and protect low-density or environmentally sensitive areas.
Dave Laufenberg, a Springfield town supervisor, said the county is exercising too much control over the town’s growth.
“We just felt it was the county executive’s office throwing their weight around,” he said. “They want us to cluster new development around other towns and villages. This subdivision would’ve just filled in a gap between other subdivisions.”
But now, Falk said, she’s worried the County Board’s veto override will send a message to developers that rural land is there for the taking.
“I see two consequences of this,” she said. “One, it is contrary to Dane County citizens’ quality of life with our incredible farmland and natural resources. Two, it tees up what will need to be the county’s consistent policy.”
A voluntary farmland management program for towns might intrigue developers, but a mandatory program might make their lives easier, said Brad Ziegler, president of Hartland-based Della Properties Ltd.
“It doesn’t necessarily give us a new card to play,” he said. “It’s still very much what towns decide.”
Ziegler has worked with the town of Windsor on a $14 million mixed-use development, and he said the town already had a farmland preservation plan in place.
That’s preferable, he said, to a voluntary plan that leaves a gray area between what a town expects and what the county expects.
“We’re constantly striving for perfect information, so we can move on with our project,” Ziegler said. “I’d just as soon like them to take a position on it now because after costs have been spent on initial planning — which can be tens of thousands of dollars — you don’t want to be caught waiting in a back and forth between the county and the town.”
Still, Laufenberg said, if the county makes preservation plans mandatory for towns, there is no need for local government.
“The amount of governing we can do is already very limited,” he said. “If they’re going to make more and more stuff mandatory and to the point, well, why even have us? We don’t like to be told what to do anymore than we have to.”
Falk said she expects push back, but it’s worth it if a new law can prevent subdivisions from chewing up the county’s rural areas.
“I have a long list of issues to tackle in the new year,” she said. “But I’m completely committed to protecting our natural resources.”