Lake Waubesa

Water quality and wetlands around Lake Waubesa could be affected by runoff from development proposed along Highway 14 south of the Beltline, critics of the plan say.

Photos by JOHN HART — State Journal

Fitchburg leaders want the state Department of Natural Resources to approve a controversial development plan for 924 acres of environmentally sensitive land near Lake Waubesa, but they aren’t asking very loudly.

Mayor Shawn Pfaff says the state should approve the plan without another formal request by the City Council. But his opponent in the spring election charged that Pfaff is seeking to avoid public action that could rile hundreds of potential voters who oppose the development.

“He is one of the most astute politicians around,” Fitchburg City Council member Steve Arnold said of Pfaff. “If he has a choice, he won’t be kicking that dog.”

The two are on the ballot for mayor in the April 7 election. Pfaff denied being stealthy, saying there have been more than 50 public votes on the plan in the last 10 years.

“Nobody is tiptoeing here,” Pfaff said Friday. “In terms of a huge City Council action, we’ve already done it.”

Pfaff said his opponent needs to answer questions about why he voted for the plan and now wants to postpone opening the land to development.

Arnold said he has always had reservations about parts of the plan and feels it should be considered after fire department services are expanded and new groundwater and population studies can be considered.

As many as 1,570 new homes, along with offices and stores, could eventually be built east of Highway 14 and south of the Beltline.

Pfaff has called it an ideal site because it is close to the Beltline.

Opponents say rainwater and snowmelt would run off hard surfaces carrying pollutants, raising the temperature of wetlands that are crucial to area water quality and increasing the risk of flooding in a nearby town of Dunn neighborhood.

The Fitchburg City Council last year voted in favor of expanding the area where sewer lines may be extended to allow construction of new neighborhoods in the city’s northeast corner.

Previous versions of the plan had gotten City Council approval three other times, but Pfaff was the first mayor to forward an application to regionalplanners.

However, hundreds of opponents signed petitions and spoke out at several public hearings, and on Nov. 13 the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission voted 6-5 to deny Fitchburg’s application.

The DNR has reversed decisions of the commission twice.

In 2011 and 2012 the DNR sided with two municipalities — Mazomanie and Verona — after the commission rejected their plans to expand development zones.

The DNR said the commission could deny plans only on the grounds that they didn’t meet state water quality standards.

But in those cases, the municipalities made formal appeals.

DNR water quality bureau director Susan Sylvester said Friday that without such a request, the agency doesn’t review regional planning commission decisions.

Pfaff said the city’s position should be evident to the DNR. And he said city manager Tony Roach recently contacted a top DNR official about the proposal. However, Roach said his email to the agency simply asked when the DNR would take action on the plan.

Sylvester told the State Journal that the agency typically takes no action on regional planning commission decisions.

The DNR pays the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission on a contract basis to review sewer extension proposals in Dane County to make sure they comply with water regulations, shesaid.

The Regional Planning Commission’s staff recommended approval of Fitchburg’s Northeast Neighborhood plan.

But commissioners, who are appointed by local government officials and associations, said they were worried that building in that area would significantly harm water, said commission chairman Larry Palm.

Some were concerned that plans for controlling floodwater wouldn’t be sufficient, especially after hearing scientists discuss the increased frequency of extreme weather events. But the DNR told the commission it can’t make decisions based on the belief that professional engineers have failed to design proper safeguards, Palm said.

Commission members also expressed concern that Fitchburg has more than enough development-ready land for decades to come.

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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.