Saturday, December 18, 2010

Smart Growth and Comprehensive Planning

In a nutshell

The comprehensive planning process in Wisconsin grew out of the smart growth movement. Smart growth is an urban planning term that refers to the concentration of growth in compact walkable urban centers as an alternative to urban sprawl, and disconnected neighborhoods. Smart growth values long-term regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus, and the broader general public good over narrower private interests. Smart growth goals include the achievement and preservation of a unique sense of community and place; equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of development; preservation and enhancement of natural and cultural resources; and the promotion of public health.

Smart Growth principles contrast sharply with the growing practice of developers purchasing/developing inexpensive farm or forest land, detached - and sometimes many miles from - the municipalities that serve their needs. Bringing services to disconnected developments - sewer, water, schools, transportation, shopping, etc.- becomes a consequential burden to local taxpayers.

Any increase a rural residential development brings to the tax base is more than offset by the cost of providing basic services and infrastructure. The American Farmland Trust (AFT) developed the Cost of Community Services studies in the mid-1980s to provide communities with an inexpensive way to measure the contribution of agricultural and forest lands to the local tax base. The study shatters the long-held myth that residential developments will lower taxes for the community. On the contrary, Wisconsin residential property on average costs $1.10 to service per $1 collected in taxes, as opposed to $0.22 for farm and working timber lands. Bayfield County realizes on average 88% more tax revenue from agricultural and working forest land, than it does from a residential development displacing those ag and forest lands. The farther away the rural development is from the municipality that serves it, the higher the cost to taxpayers.

The comprehensive planning process that recently took place in Bayfield County, allowed each community to develop their own sense of place through community visioning and citizen involvement, and to adopt principles to be applied to each new zoning issue. The comprehensive planning law gives communities the authority, through zoning, to restrict development to specific areas, and preserve open space, farmland, forestland, and environmentally sensitive areas. The maps that each town produced, and which are part of the Bayfield County Comprehensive Plan 2010, visually portray the land use approved by the townspeople.

The Town of Russell, for example, describes their sense of place in their comprehensive plan document, as “rural character… comprised primarily of a relatively undeveloped place, rich in natural beauty. Forests, woodlands, the natural landscape and vegetation predominate over the built environment outside of the core business area for the Red Cliff Reservation.” The town specifies that development should occur adjacent to the developed village. Another Town goal is to “Conserve, protect, manage, and enhance the Town’s natural resources.” Each town’s plan document will be unique and based on their current land use, population, and cultural and natural resources. Russell is the only Bayfield town to encompass a National Lakeshore, and Tribal Lands. Russell’s pledge to “preserve to all extent possible” their “forests, woodlands, and natural landscape” is a fitting goal for a unique and naturally gifted town.

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