A Message from President Mike Theo: Our High Wire Act

 Mike Theo  |    October 08, 2018
President Message

When you were a kid, do you remember those circus acrobats who teetered high above the audience slowly making their way across a high wire? Clutching a long balancing pole, they ever-so-gingerly slid across a ridiculously narrow cable strung between two towers perched high under the big top — always with a predictable tremble or quiver, just enough to make your heart skip a beat. And remember when you got older, viewing similar exploits across the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and even between the old Twin Towers? These aerial exploits mesmerized us because we marveled at the incredible balancing act these athlete/entertainers demonstrated. 

These visions popped into my head as I considered the history of the WRA over the past 30 years with regard to environmental issues. By the very nature of our business, we have had to pursue public policies that sought to protect the environment and property rights — simultaneously. This has proven to be a difficult balancing act indeed. 

I remember clearly when we first seriously confronted the need to find such a regulatory equilibrium. The year was 1996, and the environmental regulation focus was shifting from clean air and water issues to land use issues. As a result, the WRA — along with builders, developers and farmers — was pushed to the forefront of the fray. But unlike how we were portrayed publicly, we saw merits in both sides of the debate. After all, we wanted what our customers and clients wanted, which was a clean environment, affordable housing and a thriving economy. 

To position ourselves to constructively engage in these land use issues, we needed to move from a win-lose to a win-win approach to environmental regulations: We set about a deliberate, multi-year, multi-pronged approach to strengthen legal and research capabilities, developed a proactive legislative agenda demonstrating a balanced regulatory approach, cultivated coalitions from stakeholder groups, and enhanced our public messaging with both paid and earned media to advocate for laws that protected both environmental and property rights. 

We created a new information management tool called “On Common Ground” that brought together academics, environmentalists, developers, builders, farmers, local government officials, lawyers, regulators and the media to discuss key land use and environmental issues. We sponsored symposia to discuss issues and balanced regulatory solutions. We strengthened our Legal Action Fund to write amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs on precedent-setting cases making their way through the court system discussing the impacts of certain cases on property ownership. And we engaged top legal and legislative experts to help craft our advocacy responses to legislation and to draft new laws and regulations that embodied balance. 

Our approach can best be illustrated in the passage, and maintenance, of Wisconsin’s Smart Growth law that was adopted in 1999. The law required most local communities to create a comprehensive plan to guide land use decisions. Under the law, a comprehensive plan must contain at least nine elements — including housing, natural resources and economic development — and most local land use regulations were required to be consistent with that local comprehensive plan by 2010. The legislation was supported by environmental groups as well as the WRA, builders and others.

Some criticized the WRA as having “sold out” to Madison-based environmental and conservation groups and betraying private property rights. Many still criticize us for that original and continued support over all these years. But the principles we developed and applied in drafting this law remain as worthy of support now as then, and those principles embody a balanced regulatory approach. We supported the law because:

  • Good planning enhances a good high quality of life, which benefits the industry and property owners by anticipating and investing in the infrastructure for new development. This includes ensuring enough groundwater, parks and open space make communities attractive and maintain high property values.
  • Requiring public participation in the planning process helps property owners better protect their interests by providing them the opportunity to give their opinions and be aware of what others think. This not only better informs property owners; it makes elected officials directly accountable to the public. Today, property owners are more aware of planning efforts in their communities than ever before.
  • Smart Growth requires planning and zoning regulations be consistent so property owners and developers have reasonable certainty as to how they can and cannot use their property. 
  • Under the law, housing and economic development issues are considered as part of every plan. Before Smart Growth, housing and economic development were afterthoughts in many communities. Anti-growth policies were often adopted without considering how such policies would affect the cost of housing, area businesses or the property tax base. While Smart Growth does not prohibit communities from adopting anti-growth policies, it does provide them with better information about the destructive impacts of such policies and encourages them to adopt more responsible alternatives. 

Supporting laws and regulations that protect the environment, property rights and affordable real estate at the same time is a difficult high-wire balancing act, but the outcomes have certainly been worth the effort. We remain committed to this approach to this day. 

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