Black Earth Creek

Protecting the quality of waterways such as Black Earth Creek, a trout-fishing destination in western Dane County, has been a priority for the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, but a Republican lawmaker says the commission has gone too far. 

A Republican lawmaker wants to impose a deadline on environmental reviews of proposals for extending development into rural areas in Dane County.

Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, said he doesn’t expect the bill to pass in the waning weeks of the Legislative session, but he hopes to spur discussion because builders and developers are unhappy with the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission.

“I know this is controversial, and I’m certainly not trying to clip anyone’s wings on protecting the environment,” said Jagler, whose district reaches into the northeast corner of the county. “When you look at the length of the delays, and there is no procedural timeline in place, I want to make sure these projects move along.”

Jagler is seeking co-sponsors for his proposal to require a decision on proposed extensions of sewer lines within 90 days. Unless the municipality applying for the extension agrees to a delay, the sewer extension would be approved automatically unless the state Department of Natural Resources obtains a court order to allow more time.

When Dane County municipalities propose expansion of urban areas, the regional planning commission — an independent body created by state law and governed by representatives of county, city, village and town governments — studies plans and makes recommendations to the DNR on whether water quality standards will be met.

The commission is meant to be a place for local government entities to work out their differences about where development will occur and how growth can be accommodated without unnecessary cost to taxpayers or worsening of pollution and traffic congestion.

But since 2011, the DNR has backed Mazomanie and Verona officials who complained that the commission improperly blocked proposals.

The DNR approves maps that guide where sewer lines may be extended in the next 20 years. Under state law and agency rules, approval is based on the ability to design developments that won’t unnecessarily harm the quality of lakes and streams and that will maintain certain water quality standards.

Regional planning commission staff members use vast stores of data and computer modeling to evaluate development plans, and often they find methods that municipalities and developers agree to use to do more than the minimum needed to meet state standards.

Commission members have sometimes pushed for additional protection for sensitive waterways such as Black Earth Creek and the Upper Sugar River, and for measures designed to limit urban sprawl.

“They aren’t adhering to the DNR standards because of political pressure from those outside environmental groups,” said Andrew Disch, a lobbyist for the Madison Area Builders Association who has pressed for legislation like the Jagler proposal.

Members of the Capital Region Advocacy Network for Environmental Sustainability have monitored the regional planning commission closely and have been frustrated that it never seemed to say no until the Mazomanie and Verona projects were rejected, said the organization’s treasurer, Jon Becker.

“And then we found out that if they didn’t approve every sewer extension, there would be an end run (to the DNR),” Becker said.

Kamran Mesbah, the planning agency deputy director, said many extensions that have been approved were altered and improved significantly at the staff level before they went to the commission for a vote. Staff members have persuaded municipalities to discard costly plans for unneeded sewer lines and helped them revise subdivision designs to reduce runoff that can push mud and farm manure into streams and cause fish kills, Mesbah said.

When commission staff demonstrate how changes can be made, developers often voluntarily take steps to do more than the state requirements on protecting water quality, Mesbah said.

Mesbah said the deadlines in Jagler’s proposal would eliminate opportunities for those kinds of improvements, which would make the county less attractive to job creators who are seeking places with high quality of life for themselves and their employees.

“Quality of life these days is crucially needed for economic development,” Mesbah said. “People don’t go to Gary, Indiana, even if there is a job there, because of the pollution. They want to go where they can get employment and enjoyment.”


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.