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Court ruling clouds Capital Area Regional Planning Commission’s future

By Paul Snyder

A circuit court’s order that the state review a 200-acre development proposed for Mazomanie may put a regional planning commission in jeopardy.

“I think it’s fair to say our future is up in the air at this point,” said Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag, a member of the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission. “CARPC’s there to do a job, and I think it’s trying to fulfill it, but there’s a lot of controversy surrounding it.”

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moeser on Tuesday ruled the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources erred in not reviewing CARPC’s 2009 rejection of a 200-acre mixed-use project proposed by Madison-based Hawthorn & Stone Development Inc.

Gov. Jim Doyle in 2007 formed the commission through an executive order. CARPC was created as an advisory body to the DNR that reviews water quality issues and sewer extension proposals for new developments.

CARPC rejected the proposal on the grounds the development would hurt nearby Black Earth Creek. The DNR accepted CARPC’s action without reviewing it. Mazomanie in December sued the DNR, arguing the commission’s advisory role meant the DNR must make the final decision.

Mazomanie President Buzz Holcomb called Tuesday’s decision a step in the right direction.

“I’m sure they’ll find something to appeal,” he said. “But it gives us pretty good ground to work on when the judge says it’s the DNR’s responsibility to oversee these decisions.”

Bill Cosh, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said the state has not yet decided whether to appeal.

In addition to CARPC’s rejection of the Mazomanie proposal, the commission earlier this year rejected a sewer service extension in Verona on the grounds the project would harm the Sugar River and Badger Mill Creek.

But Holcomb said the commission’s decisions are based on political, not scientific, reasons. He said CARPC staff members provided studies that the Mazomanie development would not harm Black Earth Creek, but political pressure drove the rejection.

“I think CARPC has to be completely redone,” Holcomb said. “It’s a political arm that (Dane County Executive Kathleen) Falk uses for her own personal achievements. It’s a political tool to throw their weight at communities in Dane County.”

Falk’s chief of staff, Topf Wells, said the county executive only appoints three of the 13 commissioners, and the commission was set up so no one appointment could decide a vote.

“That’s the most idiotic, ridiculous claim I can imagine,” Wells said of Holcomb’s comment. “When people say it’s all political, it’s a way of saying their political viewpoint was not reflected.”

In the commission’s three years, Wells said, it has rejected only two of 29 proposals.

“All deliberations take place in open sessions,” he said. “They take public testimony. They listen. The meetings go on and on.”

Still, Sonnentag said, politics enter the commission’s debates. He said if the commission would rely solely on staff recommendations and scientific evidence, decisions would be made much quicker and easier.

“But the commission is divided along the lines of growth and no growth,” he said. “On one side, you have the environmentalists that don’t want it, and on the other side, you have the city and village guys that are all for it.”

Before CAPRC was formed, Dane County had a regional planning commission that former governor Scott McCallum in 2002 disbanded because of similar municipal disputes. Sonnentag said it is possible CARPC will meet the same end.

Commission Chairman Phil Van Kampen said the governor could disband the commission, or the county could dissolve CARPC simply by eliminating it from the budget.

But Tuesday’s court decision serves notice to the DNR, not the commission, Van Kampen said.

“They didn’t say our decision was faulty,” he said. “They just said the DNR needs to review it. They have to say where our authority ends and the DNR’s begins, because right now, we just don’t have the clarity as to what our role is exactly.”

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