By Dennis Shook, for   Published Jun 23, 2006 at 5:12 AM
Despite remarks by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Rod Nilsestuen, state agriculture secretary, Waukesha County is hardly turning into one big parking lot.

So said Waukesha County Executive Daniel Vrakas, in response to criticism by Barrett and Nilsestuen at a luncheon meeting last week at the Oconomowoc Lake Club.

Both men warned that Waukesha County was developing too fast and without sufficient regard to the environment.

Barrett said, "If we continue to allow and encourage, through our policies, developers to go to green fields, go to agricultural land, and chew it up like a Pac-Man, what will that do? It will create a doughnut effect in the urban areas and for those who love the land ... we paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Barrett was particularly critical of a recently announced proposal to develop a retail center at Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc, near Interstate 94, which has been attracting developers that might have been considering locating in Milwaukee.

But Vrakas, who called Barrett a friend, nevertheless said Barrett was mistaken about the county, in general, and Pabst Farms, in particular. "When Pabst Farms is fully developed, it will use less ground water than it did as a farm," Vrakas said.

He added that despite political calls to tighten the county's purse strings, he plans to continue the policy set by former Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley and spend about $1 million annually to acquire park land and open space. "One of the things that people don't seem to understand is that one-third of  the land in Waukesha County is zoned [for] agricultural use right now," Vrakas  said. He acknowledged that the amount is a far cry from the "Cow County USA"  days of the 1950s but said it is among the leaders in southeastern Wisconsin.

"We now have a population of about 385,000 and when the county is totally built out, we should have population of about 525,000," Vrakas said, using county estimates. "By that point, it will be very well planned, with conservation subdivisions and development that recycles and recharges the  groundwater system."

Vrakas said he agrees with the concept of preserving land whenever possible.  As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he took several  environmental courses that focused on just such topics, he added.

Nilsestuen, Gov. Jim Doyle's ag secretary, also expressed concern about development, saying that land "is not only economic. It's place, nature, our heritage and future."

He said a report on strategies to help preserve the state's lands and forests will be issued in July.