The Human Side of Land Use Planning

I spent a goodly chunk of this evening bearing witness at a County Board of Supervisors meetings. Up for vote was a the rezoning of 14 acres of A-1 Ag land to be rezoned A-2 for the placement a gravestone engraving business. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first major test of our County’s Agricultural Land Use Plan, whose fundamental goal is to protect Ag land form development.

The issue at stake was that we are experiencing an expansion of the Hwgy 26 “corridor” and the State of Wisconsin is building bypasses around most of the major cities along its route. In addition to killing many of the downtowns, adding to sprawl, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars, this project also means that hundreds of landowners are getting their land annexed. The gravestone business is one of those landowners.

The owner found a seller of a 14 acre plot of farmland currently under production and offered a very handsome sum to the farmer-about 5x the assessed value. This princely sum also happens to be a fraction of the price that land currently zoned commerical is going for in the area. You now see the motives for both the parties in the transaction.   But the Board, some of whom have strong libertarian leanings, was struggling with the fact that their Plan was making it hard for a farmer “to do what he wanted to” with his land. Even more so the very personal appeals from several of the employees of the tombstone business stressing the fact that it was a small local business just looking to survive got alot of heads bobbing.

The point made by myself and others, was that adjusting the zoning in this case would set a dangerous precedent and erode the Land Use Plan to nothing. We could not let the Prime Ag Land of the county die the death of a thousand cuts. The business owner had options as there is plenty of open comemrcial land availible.

Those opposing the zoning change had a very strong turnout-almost 2 dozen showed up to speak, and I do feel that even if our words didn’t carry weight, the sheer fact that we were there to bear witness to the vote helped many vote for what was Right, not what was Easy.

It was hard to speak against a Farmer earning enough money from the sale of his land to retire 5 years sooner. It was hard to tell the employees that they had to live in uncertainty for months longer as the owner sought another option. Maybe the vote will even push him to sell the business. Maybe our words caused 11 local craftsman to become unemployed. Those last two are unfair. We didn’t order the freeway expansion and that is where the blame lies. But it was still hard.

The point of this whole post is that there is always a human side to our decisions and we lose site of that at our peril. Raise Gas Taxes and the Working Poor get hit harder even as Smog decreases. Up the CAFE standards and maybe GM moves a light truck plant oversees to cut costs to pay for R&D.

What is Right is often not Easy. I believe strongly that we made the right call tonight- we set precedent that our Plans are not wind. But we must also ensure that we spend equal energy finding ways to make the impacts of our decisions hurt less to those that may suffer from them. Failing to do so puts us on a slippery slope off of the Morale High Ground.


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