County Waterbody Classification Project All Wet

Carol Schaeffer, as head of Smart Growth, speaks what's on many area developer's minds. She's the one who sits through the meetings and keeps her eyes on zoning changes. In "Developing Inroads," we'll get a better idea of the roadblocks and inroads developers have when building in Dane County.

The Dane County Lakes and Watersheds Commission received a grant in 2004 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to design water resource management policies based on the different types of water bodies found in Dane County. The ensuing Phase I report was followed by a successful application for a Phase II grant to come up with a management plan for Dane County water quality. You may already be yawning, but I assure you, you should be paying attention.

Why? Because the outcome of this management plan was to suggest extending the County’s regulatory authority into the shore land zone of villages and cities. Instead of properties 75 feet from the water being regulated, now properties 1,000 feet from a stream or a pond or 300 feet from “navigable water” are included as properties that must perform mitigation if they make certain changes to their existing structures or land.

And we’re not talking about a couple of mansions on the lake. We’re talking about 57,000 plus properties in Dane County that are impacted by at least one, and up to three types of mitigation: Water Quality, natural scenic beauty and habitat.

You can find all of the technical information on the Lakes and Watershed Commission’s Water Body Classification project Web site, but what I have to share is my frustration in dealing with this process. First and foremost, I am offended by Dane County officials and staff who are simply dismissing any information from the opposition as “lies” and “misrepresentation.” Rather than engage on the issue itself, they are simply trying to dismiss legitimate concerns and questions as false and hysterical.

In July of this year, the Realtors of South Central Wisconsin, the Madison Area Builders, Smart Growth Greater Madison, and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, all signed onto a nine page letter to the Lakes and Watershed Commission listing a myriad of concerns about this proposal. The principle concerns pertained to the cost/benefit of the program, involvement in the process and public transparency.

The letter went completely unacknowledged, and the request to send out public notification to affected property owners that this process was underway was denied. We were told that they publicly noticed the meetings, and a mailing was too expensive.

Now, other than people like me who are paid to follow ordinance changes, most people don’t routinely search through every agenda at the municipal and county level to see if there might be a proposal that may affect their property. In a situation where 57,000 plus properties are affected, you would think that at least a courtesy mailing is in order. Imagine the outrage if a developer went to the Madison Plan Commission with a major project without notifying the surrounding neighborhoods?

Developers are actually required to do so, because, well, it’s the right thing to do. Since the County wouldn’t do it; the impacted industries did.

I am not saying that your property value will plummet 25 percent no matter what. However, I am saying that in the expert opinion of many assessors, appraisers, mortgage bankers, Realtors, developers and builders — who deal with property values as part of their livelihoods — this may have a negative impact on properties that now fall in a more heavily regulated shoreland zone. And note I said “may.”

Are they impacted equally? No, and we understand that. Will the improvement to water quality offset the initial costs of the program? That we do not know.

On one hand, the staff at Lakes and Watersheds is saying that if we do not do this project it will have an irreversible negative impact on water quality. They say it will keep the equivalent multiple railroad cars full of sediment out of lakes. However, when property owners at the Lakes and Watershed Commission hearings angrily demanded to know what was going on, they were told to settle down, this will only impact seven properties a year on average.

Really? That is going to do the trick? Seven properties a year? Is an arbitrary point-system based mitigation requirement for seven projects a year, or 140 over the course of 20 years, really worth the risk of lowering property values of 57,000 plus properties that will now be deed restricted in varying degrees, depending on the type of water body you are near? And again, I say “risk,” not “certainty.” We simply don’t know and the County doesn’t seem concerned about it happening.

Maybe the LWC is right and they can save the lakes seven properties at a time without costing property owners property value, and maybe mitigation for those who do make changes to their properties that trigger those requirements will not be overly burdened by cost. However, a preliminary report, posted on the Dane County Property Rights website that was commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, found a whole lot wrong with the management plan. It said the County’s estimate of the effect of the Management Plan on existing property owners was misleading.

At the two public hearings the Lakes and Watershed Commission held (and only held because LWC was pressured to do so by the same associations who notified the public that this was happening), hundreds of property owners came out in opposition to what they saw as further encroachment by the County government onto their property.

So is it us who is lying when we suggest that we don’t know, but are worried about the impact and outcome of this proposal — and suspect that it may very well be bad for Dane County? Are we being misleading when we ask for the science that will show how this plan will actually clean up the lakes, and when we ask for real evidence? Are we out of line for requesting that the owners of the 57,000 properties in question be aware and involved in this effort?

There is a long way to go, whatever the LWC decides to do with the management plan, and then it is still up to the County Board to determine if they want to consider an ordinance amendment. Make sure you educate yourself and make your own judgment call. I happen to think this is a very inefficient way to address a part of the problem with our lakes (farm runoff is a much bigger problem in any given year than seven properties that trigger mitigation requirements), and that the County-wide cost to do this will outweigh the greater good.

If someone produces solid evidence to the contrary, I will be the first one to say great! Until then, this is one report that I think they should sink.

For more information:

Lakes and Watershed Water Body Classification page
Dane County Property Rights home page

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