State Revamps Planning Laws

In the Great Lakes region states have been slow to put together
legislation to address urban sprawl. Only one state in the region,
Wisconsin, has passed comprehensive reforms of its planning statutes.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… now
developers, environmentalists, and political leaders in that state are
all reading from the same blue-print:


In the Great Lakes region states have been slow to put together legislation
to address urban sprawl. Only one state in the region, Wisconsin, has passed
comprehensive reforms of its planning statutes. Now developers, environmentalists,

political leaders in that state are all reading from the same blueprint. The Great

Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

At the American Planning Association’s office in Chicago, Stuart Meck says
there’s been a huge surge in interest in trying to curb out-of-control

“It was almost as if somebody had turned on a switch in communities
across the United States and in state legislatures and there was just this
whole different environment starting about three years ago and it was no
longer business as usual.”

Meck is a senior researcher with the American Planning Association. He’s
been working to compile updated models for planning and zoning legislation.
He says the group found most state planning statutes are based on model acts
adopted by the U.S. Commerce Department in the 1920’s.

After World War II, development in the suburbs boomed, but planning laws
didn’t keep pace. Meck says most communities reacted to growth by turning to
the state, and the state reacted by building roads. Meck says few places
actually followed any kind of plan.

“And we’ve tried all these fixes like, you know, expanding our
interstate system, and widening highways and stuff like that and it doesn’t
seem to be working. The cumulative effect of all of those things is they use
up a lot of farmland; they create suburban areas in which there’s no
activity after dark, and we think what’s going on right now is sort of a
revisiting of some of earlier types of development forums, and seeing
whether there’s some value to that.”

Stuart Meck says the American Planning Association is finding cities want to turn away from endless

tracts of suburban homes on meandering streets and instead look at building neighborhoods of homes,

stores, and schools.

But an urban area’s growth is affected by development outside a single community. Meck says that’s

why state governments need to establish a framework for planning, uniform laws that help individual

communities and larger areas manage growth.

In the Great Lakes region, only one state has passed legislation that over-hauls its planning

statutes: Wisconsin.

Tom Larson is the director of land use and environmental affairs with the Wisconsin Realtors

Association. He says in the past, Wisconsin’s debate was about whether growth should be stopped.

That argument pitted pro-growth developers against anti-growth environmentalists, and towns were

not thinking of anything beyond their own borders.

‘Communities were often planning very myopically, looking at only one particular issue without

looking at potential impacts on various… on other areas of their community.”

Larson says Wisconsin’s new comprehensive planning statues acknowledge there will be growth, and

tackles the question of how to grow better.

The new statutes require more public involvement. Public hearings must be held so that residents

and neighboring communities know what the state or local government is planning. Tom Larson says

communities now have to think about how development affects not just the prosperity of a community,

but how it affects things such as parks, transportation patterns, and schools. The statutes also

close loopholes that allowed communities to ignore their own plans whenever it suited them.

Brian Ohm is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He’s credited with

bringing together environmentalists, realtors, homebuilders, and government planners to draft the

legislation. Ohm says Wisconsin’s planning law reforms are broad. They’re not just about preserving


“It goes way beyond just saving an acre of farmland here or there. There’s a lot of issue that are

involved and hopefully through good local comprehensive planning as a base, we can begin to address

the broader and more complex issues of sprawl.”

Ohm says reforming Wisconsin’s planning statutes won’t necessarily stop sprawl. But the

comprehensive planning process adopted by the state will make communities aware of what they’re


‘You know, communities, through their plans, will still be able to be as pro or anti sprawl as they

want. The state’s not going to dictate the outcome of that, but again it’s going to have to be—

those decisions as made
my local governments are going to be made on a more informed set of factors
through the comprehensive planning process.”

Ohm says the new planning statutes will mean local communities, counties,
and the state will all be aware of each other’s plans and how their plans
affect overall growth in an area.

Tom Larson at the Wisconsin Realtors Association says following the
comprehensive planning process will mean some changes and some
inconveniences for realtors and developers. But he says it will also mean
everyone will understand what a community’s goals are and how every sector
fits into the plan.

“What our end goal was, was to be able to plan through consensus, to
bring all the interest groups together at the local level as well as at the
state level and say, ‘How do we want our communities to grow; how do we open
up communication, make everybody part of this process, and how do we build
through consensus?’ I think that’s what… hopefully that’s what our message
is and hopefully what the legislation will encourage communities to do.”

All the parties involved say changing Wisconsin’s planning statutes was not
easy. Not every issue was resolved. They also say Wisconsin never could have
managed its growth without over-hauling the law. The American Planning
Association says states that try to tinker around the edges of their 1920’s-style

planning laws will find little success.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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