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EPA warns against rail sprawl

By Sean Ryan
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The town of Somers had a plan: Commuter rail runs through town, a train station gets built north of 12th Street and up pops 100 acres of apartments, shops and restaurants.

But where Somers welcomes the promise of development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spots the threat of sprawl from train stations along the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail project. The EPA wants planners to consider building train stations in areas that are more developed.

Development is not sprawl if it is part of a community’s long-term development planning, said Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors.

“That’s a new area,” he said of the land around Somers, “but, again, I think in the grand scheme of things, when you look at the map, hopefully we would have thousands of new people moving into that area.”

The EPA, after reviewing a draft environmental-impact statement (PDF) for the more than $200 million KRM project, called for more studies in certain areas. The agency asked local planners in the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to study optional locations for the nine stations proposed for the commuter rail line. The EPA warned the stations could lead to development of open spaces and sprawl among the three major cities in the KRM corridor.

Local planners will consider the comments in the EPA letter as the project’s environmental planning and engineering proceeds, said Ken Yunker, SEWRPC executive director.

But the KRM stations are meant to spur a construction boom, resulting in redevelopment or new projects, said Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit Now, also known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Coalition for Transit. It can be better when stations are in undeveloped areas because it provides more flexibility for the creation of mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods, she said.

“You are certainly looking at providing something that is much more valuable for transportation efficiency,” Thomas said, “and certainly something that is much more valuable for property value and economic development.”

Somers Town Chairman James Smith said the town approved a plan to let Illinois developer Jay Hergott develop a train station in the spot proposed in the KRM plan. The station would encourage development of restaurants, coffee shops, single-family homes and apartments that Hergott plans to build, Smith said.

Moving the station south to a highly developed spot closer to Carthage College would not have the same potential, he said.

“It’s amazing that they haven’t been in contact with us,” Smith said of the EPA.

Yunker said the KRM planning included development plans for all of the areas where stations are proposed. Each community adopted the plans and will follow them if the KRM project becomes reality, he said.

He said details of station locations and their effect on development will be worked out if the project progresses to more detailed planning phases.

“They’re providing guidance for the preliminary engineering by saying, ‘We expect you are going to look at those issues in more depth,’” Yunker said of the EPA response to the KRM.

Smith on Friday said he was surprised by the EPA recommendations and would need to work out what it might mean for the potential station and Hergott’s development.

“The preliminary plan is all set and ready to go,” Smith said. “And he’s waiting for the economy to turn around. He’s ready to go.”

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