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Smart Growth: plan or plot?

Wisconsin’s new comprehensive planning law is either a United Nations plot to socialize property, a big mistake or just a comprehensive planning law. The next few years will give us a clearer picture. One thing is sure: So far, the critics outnumber the supporters in this update to Wisconsin’s land-use statutes. First, let’s be clear on the terms. Smart Growth is the name for a basket of law changes passed two years ago by the Legislature. The concept behind Smart Growth is that a community will use the best available demographic data combined with the broadest possible community input to fashion a comprehensive plan that will guide community growth for 20 years. After the plan is adopted, all land-use decisions must be consistent with it. It’s a time-tested formula for comprehensive planning, and on paper, it works well. Enter cold reality. The criticisms of Smart Growth focus on three areas. Some communities are planning not to grow instead of planning in a way that accommodates growth. Many municipalities see Smart Growth as a state mandate that will cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Property rights groups are convinced that Smart Growth is a plot to destroy private landownership, or at least it’s a significant infringement on personal liberty. Let’s take a look at each in turn. No growth? Builders and affordable housing advocates complain that Smart Growth is leaving affordability behind. Communities that had ignored or underserved housing demand for decades are now building those no-growth or slow-growth assumptions into their plans instead of using real numbers and real community input. Whether this is a problem with the Smart Growth law or with local elected officials is still unresolved. It is, however, a real problem. Imagine if 10 years from now every community in Waukesha County plans for 5 percent growth, but they in fact see 10 percent growth or more? Must we build a West Marquette Interchange so people can commute from Jefferson, Walworth and Dodge counties? One of the goals of Smart Growth is to reduce sprawl by planning for housing growth that matches job growth. Too costly? Smart Growth is proving to be expensive. Communities across Wisconsin are spending tens of thousands of dollars and more to develop Smart Growth plans. Planning consulting firms have expanded to meet a sudden demand for their services. In a time of tight fiscal restraints, communities are crying for relief. But should a community be relieved of its obligation to plan? Isn’t planning a fundamental part of community development? Perhaps a small, slow-growing town in a rural area may not need to plan, but shouldn’t a fast-growing city or village in Dane County? And, finally, is it really necessary for Smalltown, Wis., to spend $50,000 on a consultant to plan for 10 houses and a Kwik Trip? Widespread plot?

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The most interesting complaint is the United Nations angle. Several property rights groups have cropped up in Wisconsin preaching less government and more freedom for landowners. They point to a United Nations proposal referred to as Agenda 21, which calls for land-use planning throughout the world. At about the same time as the proposal, the Clinton administration funded Smart Growth to update the 1920s land-use laws still in use throughout the country. Property rights furors in Wisconsin are being inflamed by efforts on the part of a certain nameless state natural resource agency to severely restrict development wherever there’s water, including existing homes and cottages. Local folks, left on their own for decades, are suddenly faced with state Department of Natural Resources-funded Lakes Planning Grants, which are land-use plans in disguise guided by a willing partner in the University of Wisconsin-Extension. The extension, meanwhile, has yet to lift one finger to aid in the development of an affordable comprehensive plan. Whether Smart Growth was a sensible updating of 80-year-old laws or the worst land-use decision in years is still unknown. Smart Growth is taking the blame for everything that is wrong with land use in Wisconsin. Much of that blame is undeserved. But does the law need adjusting? Shouldn’t communities accept their share of work force housing? Should state agencies be told to butt out of local land-use matters? These questions will be worked out — some easily, some with a lot of noise and angst. In the meantime, the construction industry needs to stay involved and vigilant for the good of the industry and the good of the state. Jerry Deschane is the deputy executive vice president of the Wisconsin Builders Association.

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