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Town-rights bill draws municipal backlash

Paul Snyder

City and village leaders are fighting a state bill that would limit their rights to review developments in neighboring towns.

“It’s a bad idea,” said Jeff Miller, DeForest’s village president. “If towns don’t like the fact that cities or villages can deny development, then incorporate. Become a city or village.

“But they don’t want to do that. You can’t have your cake with frosting and eat it, too.”

Towns, unlike incorporated areas, are not required to offer such public services as police and fire protection, nor are they required to provide libraries or sewer services.

Still, state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, argues state law could be more balanced for towns. He and state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, are ushering identical bills through the state Assembly and Senate to encourage more cooperative planning between incorporated and unincorporated areas.

A 1963 state law established cooperative planning between towns and cities or villages. If a dispute over, for example, lot size or street layout could not be resolved, the city or village had the right to delay or reject the development.

Cities and villages with populations exceeding 10,000 can review developments within three miles of their borders. Those with populations less than 10,000 can review developments within 1 ½ miles.

But a 2003 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision threw out the cooperative planning, giving cities and villages the right to reject developments within the review areas if the municipalities disagreed with the way land would be used.

Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said that led to cities and villages denying developments proposed for townships but then approving those same projects if the property owners petitioned for annexation into the cities or villages. Towns are losing a lot of land, he said, simply because cities can arbitrarily block development.

“The bill is not as dramatic as what we would ultimately like to see, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Stadelman said. “Towns should have more of a say in what can be built on their land.”

The bill does not strip cities and villages of their review rights, Smith said. It just forces incorporated areas to base the reviews on the cooperative standards established before 2003.

But that might not improve relations between incorporated and unincorporated areas.

Stadelman said the bill still lets cities and villages deny development proposals over lot size or street layout disputes.

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said the bill further fragments state development patterns.

“There’s too many levels of government in this state, and there are about 1,850 land-use plans right now that don’t mesh,” he said. “You’re going to still have industrial parks proposed next to residential neighborhoods, and we don’t have a mechanism for disputes.”

And there are plenty of disputes. The city of Eau Claire is trying to reach a compromise with five neighboring towns over a land-use plan that prompted a lawsuit last year, with the towns arguing the plan stymied their developments.

DeForest has blocked town of Windsor developments within 1 ½ miles of the village border for several years, and the town and village have not agreed on land use.

Miller said incorporated areas have earned the right to control the developments that spring up on their borders, even if it leads to, in DeForest’s case, lingering bitterness with a neighboring town. Yet despite Miller’s advice that towns incorporate if they don’t like the arrangement, he said he might not sign off on a petition if Windsor tried to do just that.

“It would depend on what they’re incorporating and where,” he said. “It’s hard to say. We’d have to take time to weigh in.”

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