By James Rowen, for   Published Mar 15, 2005 at 5:27 AM

{image1} Local government officials have no greater responsibility than serving as stewards of the land -- after all, they're not making fresh land and water any more -- but some local officials in southeastern Wisconsin are forgetting their role.

Take the series of missteps and miscommunications among local, state and regional officials that led to the improper building by a private developer of a townhouse and a recreational center into an environmental corridor along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the City of St. Francis.

When the mistake was discovered, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources proposed a solution: have the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission make up a new map that would reflect the evaporation of some of the corridor.

Imagine if U.S. Forest Service folks up north discovered that a development somehow got built inside the forest, and then decided, "Hey, let's just look the other way and draw us up a new map.'' You wouldn't think they were doing their job as land stewards and making sure the forest remained a forest for future generations to enjoy.

To its credit, SEWRPC declined to approve an official act of denial. Its stand may lead to the addition of green space or other actions to address the problem, rather than tinkering with the lines on a map.

Now travel more than 40 miles to the rural town of Oconomowoc in northwest Waukesha County, where another case of stewardship shoulder shrugging is gathering speed.

No, this is not another broadside against the massive Pabst Farms development. That's where more than 400 high-end, single-family homes and amenities of a small city are being spread on top of the very land through which rainfall could help replenish the dwindling Waukesha County underground water table.

This is a different, more rural, case study -- one that helps answer that question we've all blurted out when driving around a curve on a country lane and seeing a brand-new subdivision instead of the tall corn you remember: "How the heck did that happen?"

The land where "that" seems likely to happen yet again is 77 acres of corn and hay country sitting along a quaint, hilly two-lane blacktop called Norwegian Road in the township's northeast corner.

Some tweaking of land use rules and soil definitions could allow the construction of housing on 25 acres of the parcel -- farmland that has been productive since the 1840s, according to some of the neighbors who are fighting the proposal and trying to keep their rural lifestyle intact.

This is a rural area where there are shallow wells and no sewer lines -- territory so rural that there is no yellow centerline down the middle of Norwegian Road because there's so little traffic. For now.

The land is surrounded by other productive farmland and is something of a rarity. It lies within the last remaining 3 percent of all Waukesha County land that the county still rates as prime for agricultural productivity.

This is land that feeds us, that holds the rain.

Land stewardship? Resource conservation? Is anybody listening?

Granted -- to city folk, 10 homes on 25 acres might not sound like a big deal.

This particular piece of rural Waukesha County is an area of open vistas, historic barns and silos. But the town board and its plan commission have moved the development forward. And the town is supported by county officials who believe that clustering homes -- though city folks would say that houses on such big lots isn't much of a cluster -- makes this and other similar developments in the county desirable compromises.

Building a housing development on the parcel doesn't conform either to SEWRPC or Waukesha County's recommended land use guidelines that view residential subdivisions as generally incompatible with land zoned, as this parcel is -- agricultural preservation. In that category, only one house per 35 acres is permitted, leaving the land more easily farmed.

But Waukesha County changed its land use standards in 1998. The new standards said certain acreage, with soil categories that were not rated the highest for production, did not have to remain under the one-house-per-35-acre standard, and therefore could be subdivided.

Using the changed standards, and over objections of town neighbors who said the farmland in play had soil every bit as productive as theirs, the owner of the 77-acre parcel has applied for permission to subdivide it.

After first deciding to permit 15 homes on a portion of the property, the town finally settled on 10 houses, leaving the rest as an environmental corridor -- the same designation that proved less-than-ironclad in St. Francis.

Town chairman Joseph St. Thomas says that final approval for the proposal rests with Waukesha County -- where soil and land policy changes began the process that may permit the development -- but he rates the preservation of most of the land as positive.

He says the town board's approval of the plan in February -- and if adopted by the County Board -- will make it less likely that more homes under any later proposals will be built on the land.

St. Thomas says the development was "in-fill," not sprawl, on acreage that the county said was no longer prime farming land. "Our philosophy is: we're not going to allow residential development all over the place."

Jean Brown-Ama, whose property abuts some of the farmland on which the 10 homes may be built, says the spot nature of the plan is certainly sprawl and will lead inevitably to more residential building where none was projected.

She and others along and near Norwegian Road who are trying to prevent the development say they are inside a sprawl-inducing Catch-22 that goes something like this:

The more housing on farm land that that gets built, the more farmland that disappears.

The more farmland that disappears, the harder it becomes to farm productively, because the shrunken, less-contiguous remaining parcels are interrupted and obstructed by houses, driveways, garages and mowed bluegrass -- and that will lead to more farmland being sold for subdivisions, and so on.

A graduate of Marquette Law School, Brown-Ama reminded town officials in a Jan. 30 letter that subdividing the acreage in question was at odds with the town's master plan -- though special provisions to the plan, final county approval and an eventual rezoning to tie up the loose ends would pave the way for construction.

Brown-Ama took note of the bigger picture, arguing that "conversion of farm land open space" throughout Waukesha County was a major reason that Waukesha was embarking on its controversial plan to seek a water pipeline to Lake Michigan.

Communities throughout Waukesha County and northern Illinois, which have already sprawled out are lining up for Lake Michigan water -- speeding up the Catch-22 and accelerating the disappearance of rural living in this region.

"Planners need to start taking these issues seriously," she says.

With the town moving the subdivision plan forward, and county planning staff already giving it a thumbs-up, Brown-Ama and her neighbors see their lifestyle and land stewardship coming to an end.

From her 150-year-old farmhouse at the crest of the hill on Norwegian Road, Brown-Ama asks, "How sad would that be?"

Rowen is a policy consultant and writer who used to be an aide to ex-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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