UW-Madison researcher weighs in on Wisconsin’s Smart Growth Initiative

What is the solution to urban sprawl? Some say, tongue in cheek, it”s moving to the city. But others, like Gary Green, a rural sociology researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are evaluating the effectiveness of exclusive agricultural zoning laws and smart growth initiatives, balancing the aesthetic of open space with the practicality of denser, more orderly development.

Wisconsin”s “Smart Growth” law, signed by Governor Thompson in 1999, gives cities, towns, villages and counties a further reason to consider how to curb urban sprawl. By January 2010, all municipalities throughout the state must have a comprehensive plan for future land use.

“This is a particular challenge for rural towns and smaller villages in Wisconsin,” says Gary Green, chair of the rural sociology department at the UW-Madison and community development specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “There has been a lot of foot-dragging up north, because they don”t have the money to do this,” he says.

Municipalities that have begun the process of developing a plan are ahead of the game, but have taken some heat for the plans they have devised. “Many plans have been criticized for not being comprehensive enough,” says Green.

Green and Daniel Diaz, a graduate student in rural sociology, studied how growth management policies affect agriculture in Wisconsin. They sent out surveys to every city, village and town in the state, and ended up with a sample size of close to 1,000 respondents. The results of their study, “Growth management and agriculture: An examination of local efforts to manage growth and preserve farmland in Wisconsin cities, villages and towns,” were published in the journal Rural Sociology in 2001. In it, the authors conclude, “There has been a lack of statutory guidance on what constitutes a plan. A land use plan can denote any measure intended to affect land use regardless of the jurisdictional level involved (e.g., municipality, county, region), the scope of the measure (e.g., comprehensive, metropolitan, neighborhood), or the function (e.g., development, transportation, sewer).”

From his perspective, Green has identified several other points of concern. “One element of the plan is public participation, but it is not taken seriously,” he says. “Some communities distribute surveys or organize focus groups (to get public input), but the professional planner hired to do the job ultimately comes up with the final plan.” Green calls this pseudo-participation-input without impact.

Another issue Green is concerned about is intergovernmental cooperation that spans school districts and adjacent governmental units. “In Georgia, there was a growth management plan for the state, but also regional management plans for neighboring counties,” says Green, who lived in Athens, Ga., a college town of about 80,000 an hour”s drive from Atlanta. “Despite the interest of four or five contiguous counties in this part of the state, Dane County has decided to go it alone. This doesn”t provide a way of thinking regionally.”

Consider that Columbia County sends upwards of 40 percent of its workforce to Dane County to work. When such an “Aspen effect” exists, says Green-one in which people cannot afford to live in the city where they work-it indicates that there are housing and land use issues that have not been worked out on a regional basis.

Another land use issue facing the nation and Wisconsin is the rapid loss of farmland. The numbers don”t lie: one million acres of farmland lost to suburban sprawl every year in the United States. In the past 50 years, Wisconsin alone has lost more than eight million acres to development.
“Ag zoning is the most common land use tool employed to combat the conversion of farmland,” write Green and Diaz in their study. But even with exclusive ag zoning regulations, found only in two states-Hawaii and Wisconsin-farmland is still being developed at an alarming rate. The incentives offered to farmers in the form of tax relief are simply not enough to keep the bulldozers at bay.

“There is a conflict between farmers and new exurbanite residents,” who move to rural areas to experience small town life and all of its amenities, says Green. “The problem is that unless you take the farm out of the development path, the property values escalate so high that the only solution is to develop the land. Farmers favor restricted land use, but they also want to retain development rights so they can ”cash in” on their investment when they retire.”

From their study, Green and Diaz conclude that exclusive ag zoning is ineffective in preserving farmland in cities and villages, and only marginally effective for towns. But the town of Dunn stands out as an innovator in preserving farmland for future generations. “To take the market value out of the land, they have bought the development rights from some farmers. They were willing to tax themselves to do it,” says Green. “The premise is that they don”t trust zoning laws to control growth. This way, the land can only be sold for ag purposes.”

Green foresees that areas of the state with rapid growth and intercounty issues, such as southeastern Wisconsin, will have to partner up to lay out smart growth plans across counties. He would like to see Dane County think regionally as well. “Without a mechanism for affordable housing in Dane County,” says Green, “it defeats the intent of smart growth.”