Project Milwaukee: How Land Use is Planned

Jun 9, 2011

As Project Milwaukee continues, we hear how communities in the southern corridor approach land-use planning. Each city, town and village has its own comprehensive land use plan, but some wish planning was conducted more regionally.

This week on WUWM, we're exploring the development of a regional corridor from Milwaukee to Chicago. Economic developers insist that regions will be the major player in the new global marketplace, and that ours, around the southern part of Lake Michigan, could be part of that elite group. In today's segment of Project Milwaukee - Southern Connections, WUWM's Erin Toner looks at planning underway in smaller communities that dot southeastern Wisconsin. Many are becoming attractive to both workers and businesses headed out of Chicago and Milwaukee. Erin's first stop was in the Village of Mt. Pleasant, one of the fastest-growing communities in Wisconsin.

Caledonia is a rural village of 26,000.

"I'm standing outside Mt. Pleasant's brand-new village hall. Employees have been in this building only three weeks. Village leaders say the building is meant to serve the community for the next 50 years and there's a lot of empty space here so they're envisioning a lot of growth over the next several decades."

"On average, we probably do about $45 million of diverse development a year, new growth - industrial, commercial, multi-family and some single family."

That's Ron Meyer, director of planning and development for Mt. Pleasant. He says it is blessed by geography. The village is located smack dab between Milwaukee and Chicago, a region considered a "labor shed" – an area with diverse job opportunities. There is also easy access to Interstate 94. Those assets, plus the particular life style the village offers, have attracted 3,000 new residents during the past decade, and Meyer says many of them are commuters.

"Perhaps the husband goes to northern Illinois and the wife goes to the south side of Milwaukee. So being located between Chicago and Milwaukee, we do have people that commute north and south," Meyer says.

During the past 15 years, Mt. Pleasant has led Racine County in the construction of housing subdivisions and condominium projects. The community has also extended water and sewer lines to accommodate new commercial development, and there has been plenty. To get an idea of just how much, I went to the site of the old village hall where new construction is underway.

"Coming soon there will be a Pick N' Save at this location. There will also be a Red Lobster and a retail building that will house about four tenants."

"As a tenant does leave, almost immediately thereafter, it's re-tenanted," Meyer.

And Meyer says the village has identified 8,000 acres of land near I-94 that's prime for new commercial and industrial uses. While development may be going gangbusters, it has been planned. Mt. Pleasant, like all municipalities in Wisconsin, was required to adopt a "comprehensive plan" by January 2010 to guide development. Many plans in the southeast are designed to preserve agricultural land and the rural character of the region, and so they direct new projects to be established adjacent to existing development and in areas with water and sewer service.

The Village of Mt. Pleasant calls itself one of the fastest growing communities in Wisconsin.

But Tom Lebak is quick to point out those plans are "living documents," so they can be amended. Lebak is village administrator in Caledonia, a rural community of 26,000 just north of Mt. Pleasant. He says Caledonia may soon "tweak" its land use plan to allow more stores, factories or warehouses to be built. One modification could open the door for a Wal-Mart to locate on Highway 31. Lebak says other zoning changes could occur along I-94, where there's been a lot of commercial interest.

"We have this vast expanse of land and I would think if I was a developer, it would make me drool," Lebak says.

Lebak says the driving factors behind efforts to modify the land use plan are the village's desire to create more jobs and diversity the tax base. But change won't come easy. The village had to rent an auditorium for a recent meeting on the Wal-Mart proposal because so many people came out to object.

"There's a real concern of a wholesale change in the nature of the community and who we are and I just don't see that happening in the foreseeable future or even beyond," Lebak says.

"There is that tension in every community."

Ken Yunker is the executive director of SEWRPC, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. It works with communities on land preservation and development, attempting to balance competing interests.

"That tension includes farmers who have no one in their family that is looking to pursue farming and they view that land as their ability to retire and to be able to develop that land. On the other hand, you have the belief that we ought to keep part of the region urban and the other part rural and that area should not develop," Yunker says.

SEWRPC works to ease tensions by keeping watch of the big picture – such as where there is pressure to develop, and then calling together local planners every 10 years to update the scene. The commission recommends actions communities could take – sometimes jointly, to support growth while protecting the quality of life.

"What you are trying to convey there is with development, while it may not be immediately apparent, will come a need for urban services – sewer or water or public transit as people age. It'll take school busing to get kids to school as well. And while those costs may be buried within schools costs, they still are there."

And Yunker says what he always urges communities in southeastern Wisconsin to do when planning for the future, is to find ways to capitalize on their proximity to the greater Chicago area because of its worldwide stature.

Every community's goal in the corridor should be to create an influential region, according to Milwaukee County Supervisor Pat Jursik.

"This huge metropolitan area, and by that I mean all the way from Gary, Indiana up, is starting to join together and I think we need to look at it from a comprehensive viewpoint and start doing the planning with the whole corridor in mind instead of each little village just planning their piece," Jursik says.

Jursik has organized a group of local planners that meets four times a year to discuss land use and other issues impacting the region. Ideally, she hopes communities in southeastern Wisconsin develop common goals for preserving the region's farmland and natural resources, while also accommodating its economic growth.