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Former Sen. Bob Welch, now a lobbyist, in a 2004 file photo.

JOSEPH W. JACKSON III

The Dane County Towns Association has hired major conservative lobbyist Bob Welch to help push through state legislation on county zoning.

The association is advocating inclusion of a proposal in the state budget that would allow towns to opt out of county zoning, affording them more autonomy in making development decisions. Dane County officials and municipalities have argued that will lead to more urban sprawl and could damage water quality.

As the fight plays out, the Dane County Towns Association is stepping up its offense with the addition of Welch, a Republican state representative from 1985 to 1993 and state senator from 1995 to 2005. Welch represents 17 other entities this session and has lobbied prominently for pro-hunting groups and the ethanol industry.

“We thought he was qualified and he has the experience working with legislators from having been a senator himself to be able to assist in helping us figure out how to get this bill passed,” said DCTA legal counsel Mark Hazelbaker. “We’re also dealing in an environment where people against us on this issue have professional lobbyists, therefore we felt perhaps that’s what we have to do to get across the finish line on this.”

Dane County executive's office chief of staff Josh Wescott said, given the success of the county, it’s confounding that officials with the towns association are pursuing this change and bringing in Republicans in the state Legislature to dictate how the county grows. He said bringing aboard Welch, “one of the top Republican lobbyists in the state,” was “especially disconcerting.”

“Obviously development is happening here,” Wescott said, noting the county’s status as one of the fastest-growing in the state. “While that’s all happening, we still have the most vibrant ag industry in the entire state. We strike that balance.”

A similar legislative effort last session made it to a public hearing but then failed. Lobbying against it were Dane County, the Dane County Cities and Villages Association, commercial real estate development association NAIOP Wisconsin, Wisconsin Builders Association and Wisconsin Counties Association. Only the Wisconsin Towns Association and the Madison Area Builders Association were in support.

Many of those organizations have professional, full-time lobbyists, whereas the Dane County Towns Association has board members Jerry Derr and Tim Roehl as well as Hazelbaker.

“Up until now, it’s just been Jerry and Tim and me,” Hazelbaker said. “(We) felt maybe it’s time to equalize the odds here a little bit.”

League of Wisconsin Municipalities Assistant Director Curt Witynski said he was a bit surprised the towns found it necessary to hire Welch, given how much lobbying Derr, Roehl and Hazelbaker have already done.

“Members of that organization, along with the legal counsel that they hire, have been up in the Capitol for six weeks straight,” Witynski said.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities is also opposing the effort due to concerns about towns having control instead of counties, which Witynski said typically have more resources and planners on staff.

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“We’re always concerned that leaving towns to their own devices will result in a less thought-out planning and zoning for the entire county, particularly on the fringes of cities in the county,” Witynski said.

Wescott said of the 593 zoning petitions the county has received in the past four years, only 13 were denied, six of those by towns themselves. He believes there’s a disconnect between what the towns association is pushing for and the values and priorities of the people who live in those towns.

“Dane County is known for pretty progressive values, regional collaboration and cooperation,” Wescott said. “There isn’t a lot of sentiment, even out in these townships, for having Republicans in the state Legislature decide what those look like.”

In contrast to past legislative attempts, this push would likely narrow the legislation to Dane County, though Witynski of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said they view it as an effort to get a toehold to spread the same legislation to the rest of the state.

The issue has not yet come up at the Joint Finance Committee, but Witynski said it still could next week.

“We’ve certainly seen plenty of evidence that the towns association is working this proposal pretty aggressively and trying to get it put into the state budget,” Wescott said.

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