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New law gives towns more say in development

By Darryl Enriquez

A new state law that reduces the leverage cities or villages have over construction in adjacent towns will spur developers’ interest in approaching towns about potential projects, according to a Milwaukee-area developer.

J. Michael Mooney, chairman of MLG Commercial LLC, Brookfield, said open land and high-traffic intersections make towns attractive to developers. But until Gov. Jim Doyle signed the new law this week, incorporated areas such as cities or villages could effectively kill some projects in adjacent unincorporated areas such as towns.

Mooney said cities or villages sometimes killed projects simply to prevent growth to towns’ tax bases, or because they wanted the projects for themselves.

The new law will protect rural land rights and promote border agreements between cities or villages and adjacent towns, said state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, author of the legislation.

Since a 2003 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, cities or villages have been able to review development plans within three miles of shared borders with towns and could kill the proposals based on land-use plans adopted by the communities.

The new law continues cities’ or villages’ rights to review town proposals, Smith said, but makes killing projects more difficult.

Town proposals can only be killed or delayed by villages or cities over specific disputes such as lot sizes and road alignment, according to the new law.

The legislation is in response to the 2003 court ruling, Smith said. The ruling, which resulted from a dispute between Madison and a neighboring town over a proposed auto dealership, overturned a 1963 state law that established cooperative planning between towns and cities or villages.

“Having been the chairman of a town (Brunswick) that borders Eau Claire, I was certainly aware of complications that arise when a city supersedes town plans,” Smith said. “The new law is meant to give the towns a little more say in what happens.”

But George Scherck, mayor of Neenah and president of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said the new law gives towns too much say over property adjacent to cities or villages.

It’s important that town plans mesh with the land-use plans of nearby municipalities, Scherck said.

“We (cities) at least want to make sure that the streets line up with the towns,” he said.

Mooney agreed that some town proposals — such as building high-density commercial or residential sites and dumping the added traffic onto streets that are not capable of handling it — can be detrimental to an area.

The conflict can be as simple as a town allowing a new dairy operation to open adjacent to a city residential area, he said.

“There may be well intentioned town supervisors who want a particular development but with their limited experience, don’t see the flaws,” Mooney said. “That’s where the knowledgeable planning staff of an adjacent incorporated area steps in and improves the plan.”

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