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County Executive Action on Zoning Petitions #7959, #8030/CUP 1669, and #8015

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Issued By: County Executive
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I am not vetoing zoning petitions #8030/CUP1669 (B-Farms, Inc.) in the Town of Sun Prairie and I am approving #8015 (Buckley) in the Town of Cottage Grove.

I am vetoing zoning petitions #7959 (the Yelk petition), in the Town of Sun Prairie, because it conflicts with some of the important goals of the Dane County Farmland Preservation Plan and because it raises significant problems of fairness and the cumulative effects of development.

The county portion of the Dane County Farmland Preservation Plan, adopted by the County Board in 1982, sets the overall framework for town land use plans. It includes as a stated objective:

“To maintain the rural character of the towns of Dane County.”

The Town of Sun Prairie Land Use Plan was adopted by the town and county boards in 1980 and is part of the county’s Farmland Preservation Plan. It lists the following among its overall objectives:

“to protect farm operations from conflict with incompatible uses;”

“control sporadic development by providing for moderate growth in areas not suited to sustaining a farm operation.”

The Yelk petition would create a 36-unit unsewered residential subdivision, covering some 77 acres of land in a rural area designated in the town plan for long-term agricultural preservation. The site is more than a mile and a half from any comparable residential area. The parcel has been farmed and has a mix of agricultural soil with other natural features such as wetlands and woods. If approved, the project would not further the goals of maintaining the rural character of the Town of Sun Prairie. In my judgement, it is not an example of “moderate” growth, especially in a town where rural growth takes the form of one, two, or three residential splits from existing parcels. Finally, the project would likely raise surrounding property values and increase demand for further development in this predominately rural area. These probable secondary impacts would, over the long term, increase the potential for conflict with existing farm operations.

This is an extremely difficult veto because I recognize that the specific development has been conscientiously planned. These efforts represent long hours of hard work by the landowner, developer, and the volunteer and elected officials in the Town of Sun Prairie. The veto will undoubtedly be most frustrating for those people and for that I am sorry. In light of the local effort expended in this petition, the fact that it conflicts with the aims of the county’s Farmland Preservation Plan might not have been reason enough for me to veto it. However, the problems this petition presents in terms of equity and cumulative impacts convince me that the veto is necessary.

The Town of Sun Prairie is one of only two towns in Dane County with A1-Exclusive Agriculture Zoning but without a density standard. When rezonings in that town produce the one or two splits for residential development normally occurring in an Agricultural Preservation Area, this difference does not present insurmountable problems. However, serious difficulties emerge when the rezonings are for unsewered subdivisions, which represent the most intense form of residential development in a rural area.

The landowner and developer in this case essentially argued that a combination of less than the most prime agricultural soils and unfarmable areas such as woods or wetlands lead them to seek to develop the land with a subdivision. In the absence of a town density standard or some other objective standard, we do not have a fair standard for denying other Town of Sun Prairie farmers whose land might have similar features and those same opportunities for subdivisions. Unfortunately, we cannot have subdivisions, no matter how well designed, scattered through the Agricultural Preservation area of the Town of Sun Prairie without making that area much less viable for farming. Related to this issue of fairness to individual landowners is the problem of cumulative impacts. Again, the town plan does not offer the means of weighing and limiting the cumulative impacts of subdivisions.

Thanks to the able leadership of the Town Board, Sun Prairie has a Smart Growth grant to revise its land use plan and has an excellent start on that process. I understand that the density issue is one that will be examined and, I sincerely hope, dealt with as part of that revision. Some have suggested that I approve this petition because there will be few, if any, similar requests before the revision is complete. I respectfully disagree with that suggestion because it is not clear how long the revision and approval processes will take. More importantly, approval of this petition would offer a major development opportunity for only one of potentially many landowners who might be in somewhat similar circumstances. I think the fairer course is to have all of the town’s landowners in similar circumstances have the same development opportunities or restrictions that will be contained in the revised plan.

As I today veto this petition, I am approving a rezoning for a rural subdivision in the Town of Cottage Grove, zoning petition #8015. In that case, the town has approved a subdivision as part of its Transfer of Development Rights Program to focus development away from some of its prime agricultural areas in an area more appropriate for such development. This is an example of a well-designed subdivision affording rural housing options while saving farmland.

I have not vetoed zoning petition #8030/CUP 1669, which permits the development of a golf course and a subdivision of 14 houses. This raises some of the same troubling questions as the Yelk petition; however, there are key differences. The golf course will be situated to buffer the town and provide permanent open space along a major transportation corridor, key intersection, and the developing edge of the Village of Cottage Grove. These represent significant benefits to the Town and the county.

If the Town of Sun Prairie decides that it makes sense to permit a limited number of subdivision opportunities, I respectfully ask that it structure those opportunities so they also reduce residential development in some of their key agricultural areas. The Town of Sun Prairie has some of the best farms and soils in the world and those are surely resources worth protecting. My support of the Town of Cottage Grove petition and up to three pilot subdivisions, as called for in the Conservation Fund Referendum Agreement, demonstrates my recognition that a well-planned rural subdivision can make sense in a larger effort to protect farmland.

I offer the Town the County’s assistance as it works on its plan revision.

Thank you for your consideration of my action on these petitions.
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