There are things in life that you must learn. Most of these must learn items are things you must indeed learn to survive, or at least to thrive. You learn at a young age that water can drown you. You learn that stoves are hot, though mostly that’s for a prior generation to have learned and taught us. Our stoves were already insulated by the time we were old enough to wobble over to them. You learn that girls are sweet but that girls are mean, and that if Becky really, truly, loved you she wouldn’t have gone out for pizza with Billy. You learn, later, that reply all is a function best left unused, though Jim in accounting learned that lesson later than most.
I have, at this ripe age, learned most of the things I needed to learn. But I’m not yet done learning, of course. Now the things I learn are things that I must learn to further success, or to further knowledge. Some things must be learned simply for the sake of learning them. Ever since I was poked in the eye by the blight of development that threatens to invade my rural back yard I have been learning. I’ve been learning about subdivisions and approvals and the process through which town board members are elected, indeed the process through which they will soon be recalled. I’ve learned more than I thought I would, and in this process I have stumbled into a subject that I never desired to know about before: Regional Planning Commissions.
I am still a novice on this subject, but I am now educated enough to be dangerous, to take this figurative pen and paper and relay my knowledge to those who have yet reason to learn about this topic. Regional Planning Commissions exist all over this great country of ours, or at least in the urbanized regions. I’m not sure if north central Montana boasts an oddly powerful board of this variety, but they might. I assume out there the commission is tasked with preserving beauty and nature, whereas planning commissions in urbanized areas are tasked with the opposite. Their goal is to develop counties.
In this they are both the judge and jury, both the plaintiff and the defendant. Walworth County is “governed” by an organization called the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, or SEWRPC (pronounced SewerPack). Here’s the way this works. The commission was founded in 1960. It is comprised of an appointed board, with “representatives” from each county in its district. SEWRPC will be quick to point out that the appointed committee members are generally elected officials from their county, but this is a generality intended to make it appear as though SEWRPC is somehow representative of a county’s best interests.
But about being both judge and jury, both parties to a suit, everything to everyone. SEWRPC funds its $7.5MM annual budget through Federal Grants and Regional Tax Levies, which means it’s your tax dollars funding this organization. SEWRPC formulates growth and transportation plans for districts, and in this case, they are the group behind the Walworth County 2035 Master Plan. This is the plan that arbitrarily assigns growth corridors. The plan is meant to be a guideline for growth, based on suppositions and estimates and assumptions, but in the county and township hands this arbitrary document becomes the Gospel. If a particular farm field was designated by SEWRPC through the 2035 Plan as being fit for future development, a developer proposes a development and the county, reflecting on the Holy 2035 Plan, approves it. The issue here is that the subjective plan was put into place by an organization who has no elected authority over the township, the county, and the citizens.
The process in rife with contradiction, but one constant remains: SEWRPC is in charge. They are a government body, not directly elected but somehow still in charge. They are granted tax dollars and then they maintain the growth plans for the county that falls under their oversight. The county feels obligated to SEWRPC and generally votes to approve anything suggested by SEWRPC even though the officials at the county level are elected democratically to serve their constituents and not simply bend to the whims of their SEWRPC overlords. This is the conflict.
Do you suppose a professional developer who owns large parcels of land that he wishes to someday develop is aware of this? Do you suppose a developer is keen enough to quietly lobby SEWRPC in hopes that they’ll see his development vision and allow for it in their master plan? If we were naive, we might think this not to be a possibility. But we’re smart, because we’re learning, and we know better. The county is run by SEWRPC, by officials who were not democratically elected yet still, somehow, dictate to us what our county should and will look like in the coming years.
SEWRPC recommends certain development in certain areas based largely on their population and demographic projections (FYI- I’m discussing primary neighborhoods here and rarely, if ever, lake access type properties in the Lake Geneva vacation home segment). These are just that- projections- guesses made based on seemingly good faith that are viewed as infallible truths by the counties that bend and sway to SEWRPC and their holy whims. Most of the development goals for Walworth County were set based on estimates of population growth. Let’s look back and fact check SEWRPC to see just how accurate they have been.
In 2010 the population of Walworth County was 102,228. SEWPRC, in 2010 produced the arbitrary 2035 Walworth County Master Plan. No word if it was printed at a press or handed down directly at Mount Sinai. That plan made growth predictions for Walworth County, with three different projections for High Growth, Medium Growth, and Low Growth. Most of the development guidelines in the cumbersome, holy document were based off of the Medium Growth predictions. SEWPRC projected that the 2015 population of Walworth County would be 109,800 (High), 106,800 (Medium), or 104,800 (low). This was the growth map that the county adopted in 2010, and it is because of this assumed growth that the county has been approving subdivisions.
So how did our dictates at SEWRPC do in their estimates? How accurately did they forecast Walworth County growth? Walworth County population is currently estimated to be 103,527. Those at SEWRPC overshot all of their estimates, even their low estimate. How did they miss the mark so badly? Well, in part, because they failed to read their own report. Walworth County’s population is aging more rapidly than the surrounding counties. They reported this but they cannot fathom the reason. Walworth County chimes in and suggests that the reason we haven’t grown is because we don’t have enough vinyl ranch homes on the market.
The reason Walworth County isn’t growing in full time population has everything to do with demographic trends. Millenniums are moving to cities and staying put. Gen Xer’s did the same thing. The jobs available to full time residents here are dominated by those in the hospitality and tourism industries, because that’s where this county’s bread is buttered. How would I know this? How would I claim to understand Walworth County’s demographic trends? Because I’m a 37 year old kid who grew up here and watched his friends move away to big cities where corner coffee shops and jobs awaited them. But this isn’t about me or my friends, this is about my county and the problem with following the guidelines of an organization that has demonstrably missed the mark. Why then, if we already know the 2035 plan is falling short of the initial population projections, should we continue to adhere to it without a thorough revision?
We shouldn’t, of course. SEWRPC should have no control over us. Why would we allow un-elected officials to create and impose growth plans for our towns and villages? Why should we sit here and quietly absorb blow after blow to our county’s legacy by a group who cannot even predict growth over five years, let alone 20? Shouldn’t we question a group that presented “VISION 2050” when they’ve already been proven discredited after failing to correctly see VISION 2015? If you share my concern, email the following and tell them Walworth County shouldn’t be beholden to an organization that has failed to accurately predict growth and should, as a result, no longer dictate which farm fields get turned into empty subdivisions.
Information deemed reliable but not guaranteed.