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April 28, 2001

UW-RF Sponsors Regional Growth Conference

During the 1990s, the population of St. Croix County in Western Wisconsin grew 26 percent. During the same period, the population of the Twin Cities grew 17 percent. Clearly, the majority of growth in the region is occurring along the St. Croix River, and there is little doubt that it will continue to increase.

The challenge the region faces is to develop housing and services to accommodate the newcomers while preserving the fragile ecosystems, sense of community and rural character of the area.

The issue was addressed at "Urban Sprawl Issues: Smart Growth," a forum on land use planning sponsored by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at UW-River Falls on Tuesday, April 24, attended by approximately 400 faculty, students and area residents. The seminar was held in conjunction with Inauguration Week festivities for Chancellor Ann Lydecker.

Randall Arendt, keynote speaker for the event, described the conventional "cookie cutter" developments as a "planned mess," with streets, lawns and cul-de-sacs. "Developers have been conditioned by our laws to sprawl, using all the space for lots, with no open space," he said.

Arendt is a nationally-known site designer, author and lecturer on the topic of conservation planning. He is the nationšs most sought-after speaker on the use of creative development design as a conservation tool.

Arendt advocates clustering by placing the same number of houses on the same-size piece of land. The lots are smaller, but they are well away from busy roads. The houses are situated so they have a view of open space, there are no curbs and gutters, and landscaping is done with native species. Areas of wetlands, meadows and woods are preserved.

Panelists who contributed to the discussion included Mariano "Buddy" Lucero, planning director for the city of River Falls; John Kari, who works in policy development for the Metropolitan Council of St. Paul; Brian Ohm, associate professor at UW-Madison; Tod Drescher, a licensed architect and rural cluster design consultant practicing in the St. Croix Valley; Jim Harsdorf, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; John Vrieze, CEO and owner of Baldwin Dairy and Emerald Dairy and president of the Dairy Business Association; and Rick McMonagle, executive director of the Kinnickinnic Land Trust.

Harsdorf addressed the conflict that sometimes arises when farmers and other landowners are criticized for selling their land to developers, particularly for elderly farmers whose land sales amounts to their retirement account. "Landowners have the right to capitalize on their investment," he said. "We have to look at how planning affects food producers. Like everyone else, they need to be profitable."

He offered a suggestion that perhaps Wisconsin lawmakers and the agricultural community might consider exploring ways to subsidize farmers whose their land is prohibited from being developed.

Vrieze said many people think the dairy industry should move to less populated areas of the state, but he believes it can co-exist with development.

Kari pointed out that if the rate of growth continues, in 20 years there will be 500,000 more people in the 19-county metro area. Three of those counties are in Wisconsin: Pierce, Polk and St. Croix. "We need to work together," he said. He expressed concern that if there is too much clustering, the region could run out of land for cost-effective development.

Arendt wrapped up the conference with a workshop at which he provided participants with an actual plot map and had them to apply the principles they had just learned for organizing subdivisions with land conservation in mind.

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