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Dane County proposal targets potential flooding

Paul Snyder
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Critics are attacking a proposed Dane County ordinance that would limit development on land at risk of flooding because, they say, it’s an attempt to solve an unpredictable problem.

“Mother Nature’s got its own way,” said Chuck Elliott, vice president of Middleton-based Elliott Construction Inc. “We were supposed to have a big storm (Sunday) night and nothing happened here, it went north of us. You can’t ever really know.”

But Dane County Supervisor John Hendrick said he wants to save the county some money. With most flooding in recent years taking place outside of county flood plains, Hendrick proposed an ordinance that would give the county’s Zoning & Land Regulation Committee decision-making authority in determining whether new developments in townships should be built on hydric soil.

The Dane County Department of Land and Water Resources defines hydric soil as formed under conditions of saturation, flooding or ponding long enough during the growing season to develop vegetation without oxygen.

The county has geographic information system maps detailing exactly where hydric soil exists, and Hendrick said up to 17 percent of the county’s land is covered with the soil.

“Rather than try to buy buildings damaged by flooding or pump areas, we can see if we can head off the problem,” Hendrick said, adding the county has spent millions of dollars in post-flood recovery efforts the last few years.

Hendrick said the county would not send scientists onto land to measure how deep or when the last time the soil was underwater, relying instead on the GIS maps.

That lack of scientific backing is especially problematic for Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz, who blasted the proposal for putting such a technical decision into the hands of a committee with no development or scientific expertise.

“It’s outrageous,” she said. “There are no planners on that committee. This will consume a lot of developable areas, and it seems like a draconian way to go about things.”

If developers want to challenge land as developable or under no threat of flooding, Hendrick said, they can.

His ordinance contains a provision letting developers present scientific evidence from an expert to rebuke committee rulings that land is unsuitable.

“There certainly could be a situation that merits it,” Hendrick said. “Maybe an area flooded in the past, but now it’s protected by a levee.”

But the unpredictable nature of flooding is a problem, said Alan Harvey, chairman of the town of Windsor.

“Everybody in Dane County has had issues with flooding, particularly in the last three years,” he said. “We take it seriously, and it’s something that can’t be easily dismissed. But if there’s going to be new regulations on flooding with regard to development, I think there has to be more technical, scientific opinions.”

Furthermore, Harvey said, limiting developments in townships alone is asking for trouble.

“Flooding does not happen with respect to jurisdictional lines,” he said. “If this is something that’s going to move forward, then it’s something that needs to be evenly applied. If it’s a type of regulation that’s not equally applicable to cities and villages, it could be troublesome.”

Hendrick said Dane County’s land division ordinance only lets county supervisors impose restrictions on unincorporated land, but the Capital Area Regional Plan Commission could extend the ordinance to villages and cities.

County leaders Thursday will discuss the proposal at an Environment, Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee meeting.

Hendrick said although he is trying to predict an unpredictable pattern, he also is just trying to save some money.

But limiting development by trying to guess where floods could occur will just deter builders more if the ordinance passes, Elliott said.

“There’s so much you have to do today to get something built,” he said. “You put out one fire, and immediately something else crops up.

“I don’t think any developer wants to build on land that could be flooded.”

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