Dunn, WI Land Use Planning and Open Space Preservation

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Dunn, WI, US

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Type: Policy

Status: Enacted

Source File: (Missing)


The Town of Dunn's innovative land use plan implements growth control measures through zoning restrictions, lot size limits, conservation easements and the purchase of development rights to preserve the town's rural integrity, protect natural habitat, conserve resources, preserve open space and to maintain farming as the town's primary economic activity.

Since the implementation of the land use plan in 1979, the town has kept growth to a minimum while improving the health of local wetlands, lakes and farmland. Residents meanwhile have continued to enjoy a high-quality rural life and one of the lowest tax rates in the county.

The land use plan, implemented nearly two decades ago, came in response to burgeoning and haphazard residential development that had begun to threaten both the agricultural health of the town as well as the town's rural character.

A two-year moratorium on subdivision development was imposed and town officials, residents, students and educators met collaboratively to develop a land use plan consistent with their vision to maintain a healthy environment and to preserve the town's heritage. The town was also interested in keeping taxes down, and they knew residential development was the first step in the wrong direction if that goal was to be met. Studies show that residential development commonly costs more than agricultural preservation. "The rule of thumb is that development costs $1.25 for every $1 of additional tax base," says Ed Minihan, Chairman of the Town of Dunn. So much of the land use plan was written to discourage growth.

A comparison to the adjacent town of Fitchburg illustrates the economic benefits afforded the Town of Dunn through its land use and open space preservation programs. When both Fitchburg and Dunn were primarily rural with approximately 4,500 residents each, the paths of the towns diverged. Fitchburg chose to promote development, while Dunn chose to preserve its rural character and agricultural base. Twenty years later, Fitchburg has grown to 15,000 residents (an average increase of about 5% per year for a total increase of 233%) and the services it has had to provide have grown, too. So have the taxes that fund those services. The municipal tax on a $100,000 property in Fitchburg is $505.

The Town of Dunn has grown to 5,400 residents (an average increase of about .9% per year for a total increase of 20%). The municipal tax on a $100,000 property in Dunn is $154, or 348% less than in Fitchburg.

In addition to keeping taxes low, the land use plan has served as the springboard for protecting the local environment. The implementation of conservation easements paved the way for community action to help protect natural habitat, wetlands and watersheds. Most recently, by purchasing development rights, the Town of Dunn is preserving environmentally-sensitive areas from any future development.

Though enacted nearly two decades ago, the land use vision continues to serve and receive the full support of town residents. "Folks in the town are smart enough to keep voting for people who favor the land use plan," says Minihan. "And the town has stuck to its plan."

Program Highlights:

  • The land use plan puts strict controls on land subdivision and lot sizes, and prevents development in certain areas.
  • The plan mandates the use of traditional tools such as subdivision control and erosion mitigation ordinances, conservation easements, and exclusive agriculture, conservancy and recreation zoning.
  • The implementation of exclusive agriculture zoning protects farmland and open space.
  • Conservation easements work much better than zoning restrictions, because they can be tailored to individual parcels.
  • The town recently began purchasing development rights to permanently protect farm and open space lands from development with help from citizen contributions. The nature of this transaction will prevent the Town of Dunn from selling the development rights to a future developer.
  • The establishment of a cooperative agreement with Dane County Parks will enable the town to identify and map Native American burial grounds and villages for preservation.
  • The town has created a land trust to permanently protect farmland and environmentally sensitive areas.
  • The town has implemented cooperative wetlands restoration projects involving both town and county agencies.
  • The plan creates mechanisms for citizen action, including town committees, work crews and fundraisers.
  • The Town worked with University of Wisconsin students to inventory Dunn's natural and cultural resources including wetlands, watersheds, wildlife habitat areas, woodlots, historic sites and prime agricultural land. The inventory was turned into a publication that serves as guidance for the preservation of lakes, wetlands, forests and farmland for present and future generations.
  • The plan set out the development of a recycling program in advance of a county mandate.
  • The town has established spring community cleanups of roadsides and environmentally- and culturally-sensitive areas.

Vital Statistics:

Program Management/Partnerships: The Town of Dunn administers the Land Use and Open Space Plan in cooperation with a variety of agencies, including the State Department of Natural Resources, the Dane County Land Conservation Office, the Dane County Regional Planning Commission, the Plan Commission, the Parks Commission, the Dane County Natural Heritage Foundation and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association. Citizens serve on committees such as the Ad Hoc Committee for the Land Trust, the Burying Ground Preservation Committee, the Lower Mud Lake Preservation Committee and the Dunn Heritage Park Committee. Farmers, homeowners, renters, the elderly and the young are all represented on these committees, and all participate actively in town projects.

Budget: The Planning Department's budget for 1996 is $6,500.

Community Served: The 5,398 residents of the Town of Dunn.

Measures of Success:

  • Two major wetland restoration projects have been completed. Approximately 18 acres of damaged wetlands on the shores of Lake Waubesa were restored to their original condition and now help serve as a habitat for Northern Pike. A seven-acre parcel near Lake Kegonsa was improved with a water retension pond.
  • The town has encouraged preservation of wetlands and woodlots of more than 2,000 acres through purchases by the Department of Natural Resources as part of the Hook Island/Grass Lake Preserve, and also the preservation of 1,700 acres by the Dane County Parks Department as part of the Mud Lake Protection Area.
  • Dunn's voluntary recycling program, enacted prior to a county recycling mandate, in 1993 diverted 112 tons of recyclables from landfills.
  • Residents donated $50,000 to help defeat the proposed sighting of a landfill on the shores of Lake Waubesa.
  • The Colladay Point Neighborhood Association purchased property from developers to prevent the construction of a multi-family housing complex on Lake Kegonsa.
  • The programs have reduced the need for landfill space and have increased awareness of sustainability among residents.
  • All remaining Native American burial mounds and villages are protected from development.
  • The Burying Ground has been restored and expanded.
  • Each year the town gives an award to a community member for outstanding work in the area of natural resource preservation. Past awards have been given for the donation of conservation easements for farm and wetlands, agriculture conservation practices and fish habitat restoration.
  • The unique grassroots approach for administering the land use plan has resulted in open dialogue and cooperation among citizens, government officials, conservation agencies and university affiliates.