Planning commission provides enlightening data
The annual report of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission landed on my desk the other day. With the end of the year approaching, I assumed the report recapped 2012 accomplishments. Upon closer examination, the report, or more accurately, book, actually covered 2011 activities. Given the scope of the project, I can’t get too upset about the lateness of the document. The figures contained in the report may not be the most current, but they still tell an interesting story.
The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission was established by state statute in 1960 as the official statewide planning agency for southeastern Wisconsin. That region consists of the seven counties of Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha. I’m not sure if the legislature gave a lot of thought to the acronym that their organization’s name would produce, SEWRPC. Pronounced “sewer pack,” the name is more apt to conjure up images of wastewater treatment plants than cutting-edge planning. Despite its unglamorous name, SEWRPC does important work. The region has a significant impact on the entire state. While the seven counties represent just 5 percent of the total area of Wisconsin, they contain 35 percent of the population and jobs, and 37 percent of the tangible wealth of the state.
SEWRPC performs three basic planning functions. First, it collects, analyzes and disseminates basic planning and engineering data. Good decision-making requires good information, and the availability of such data can assist local governments. The second function of the agency involves preparing long-range plans. SEWRPC emphasizes land use, transportation and community facilities planning. The agency’s third function is to coordinate the day-to-day planning activities of all units of local government within the region.
SEWRPC is governed by a 21-member commission, three commissioners from each of the seven member counties. Each county board appoints one commissioner, with the governor appointing the other two, one from a list of possible candidates prepared by the county. Our commissioners are Nancy Russell, the county board chairwoman; Linda Seemeyer, our director of health and human services; and local businessman Charles Colman.
At the close of 2011, commission staff included 64 full-time and seven part-time employees. Financial support for the commission’s work comes from a variety of sources. Revenues in 2011 totaled $8.5 million with $2.3 million coming from the tax levies of the member counties, and the balance contributed from state and federal sources. Walworth County’s share of SEWRPC’s planning budget in 2013 will be $194,975.
The annual report, itself, is packed with statistics covering a variety of different subjects. I already knew that new home construction has been languishing in recent years. The magnitude of that decline across the region, however, was still startling to see. In 2005, for example, 6,000 new residential lots were platted for development in southeastern Wisconsin. In 2011, the figure had dropped to 201. Not a single lot was platted in Kenosha County that year, while our county’s total of eight was not much better.
Despite the decrease in new subdivisions, our county added population in 2011. Three hundred new residents called Walworth County home, which represented an annual rate of growth of three-tenths of 1 percent. This was the highest percentage of growth in the seven-county region but represented a significant slowdown by Walworth County standards. Annual growth rates during the previous decade averaged more than 1 percent. Since 2004, SEWRPC has included, in its planning documents, three population estimates: low, intermediate and high growth. In 2004, I would have bet that Walworth County was on track to meet or exceed the high-growth projections. Now, absent some major turnaround in the economy, the low-growth scenario seems more plausible.
If it is taking you longer to drive around the county, you might be interested in statistics concerning personal vehicles. The number of personal use vehicles in the county stood at 84,230 in 2011. The growth in vehicle ownership has far exceeded the growth in population in recent years. Consider that our county’s population grew by nearly 57 percent from 1972 to 2011. During that same time, the number of personal vehicles in the county grew by more than 151 percent. One of our supervisors suggested at a meeting that, perhaps, the growth in car ownership may slow down in the future. This made sense to me at an intuitive level. My parents, like many others, were able to raise their kids with a single family car. With two or more cars in many driveways today, how many more cars will families need to add to their fleets? According to the SEWRPC report, at least, the answer is plenty more. While the county added 300 residents between 2010 and 2011, the number of personal vehicles increased by 480.
Anytime a plan is committed to writing, there are bound to be critics; SEWRPC has had its share over the years. Those who are critical of plans produced by SEWRPC, however, are often the same people who criticize government for its lack of planning. From my point of view, you can’t have it both ways. No plan is perfect, but issues facing southeastern Wisconsin are far too important to be left to chance.
If you want to learn more about SEWRPC or view the 2011 report, go online to www.sewrpc.org.