After more than a year of sitting in committee meetings and begging for signatures, the 2005 Town of Verona Land Use Plan finally won approval last month.

It opens the door for eventual major changes in the way the town allows development - including densities as high as six homes per acre - though most come with major conditions that, if the city and town merge, might not ever be met.

What it does immediately is put in writing the assumptions town leaders have been operating under for quite some time, codifying a vision that addresses more than just how the town wants to deal with immediate development pressures but also where it will be headed long-term, regardless of annexations.

But planning growth and offering alternatives to annexation just don't happen in Dane County without a heavy dose of scrutiny.

"They watched every T crossed and I dotted," Town Chair Dave Combs said. "The more details you put into that plan, especially with the ZLR (Zoning and Land Regulation) committee, there were a lot more questions and issues."

County concerns

That's because in addition to updating and clarifying the previous year's plan, the revision put a face on the development potential of some closely watched areas of the town.

One is a jagged strip of land in the northeast that provides a buffer between the cities of Madison or Verona. The "transitional agriculture" designation acknowledges the uncertain fate of this area and offers landowners some limited ability to sell small parts of their land without creating true subdivisions.

It also caused the plan to languish in the ZLR committee for several months before passing through almost unchanged.

"We made a few minor editorial changes on this thing," Combs said. "A lot of concerns that they voiced to us were already written in our plan."

More concerns came from the addition of a new "urban residential" zoning designation. Allowing as many as six units per acre, it appears on the north side of town, in what seems to be natural annexation corridors for the cities of Verona and Madison, and on the east side of the bypass, in an area that until recently had been called the "Grandview Neighborhood."

The latter area put the update in danger of being vetoed by County Executive Kathleen Falk because on the surface it appears to clear the way for instant suburban development next to an ecologically sensitive corridor.

But Falk signed off on it Dec. 22 with a letter explaining that while she normally has serious reservations about such changes, "a lot of good could come from this revision."

Her letter attributes her change in perspective to an amendment requiring detailed neighborhood planning in the area (a provision that was actually included in the original document) and the town's willingness to hear a proposal for a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, which she called "visionary."

"She is saying in this message, rather than vetoing the plan I'm suggesting that we work together ... to set in place permanent protections," explained Elizabeth Kluesner, Falk's policy director. "This is not an unusual message; it's been sent to other towns. It's the same message that she sent to the Town of Windsor."

Various options

Neighborhood planning has been under way for almost a year in the Grandview area - though Sup. Bob Salzman said at this month's Town Board meeting it basically has started over from scratch.

Salzman, who has been working closely with the landowners in the area, indicated that they are in favor of limiting the density of development there as long as everyone has a fair ability to benefit from it.

The TDR idea, which County Board Chairman Scott McDonnell will present to the town in detail at its Jan. 25 Plan Commission meeting, has so far been met by town leaders with a mixture of indifference and crinkled noses.

"The Town of Verona looked at TDR/PDR in 2003," town administrator/clerk/treasurer Rose Johnson explained. "We pretty much didn't see how we can make it work."

TDR, based on a concept originally authored by former Verona Mayor Phil Salkin in the 1990s, provides a mechanism to preserve "open space," such as farmland and conservation easements, by having developers in "receiving" areas pay owners in "sending" areas for their available "splits" under the longstanding A-1 exclusive agriculture zoning rules. The idea is to ensure that certain areas preserve their agricultural heritage without leaving property owners in that area unable to benefit from the money that comes with development.

McDonnell has been promoting the dormant idea for several months, and the Town of Windsor took steps last year to forward a program along.

"They have set aside money in their town budget to do a purchase of development rights program in the area of the town designated as dedicated to ag," Kluesner said.

In Verona, it likely involve the Upper Sugar River watershed area being a sending area and the Grandview neighborhood a receiving area. The controversial Huntington Ridge subdivision - which got a lot of attention last year for its "Desperate Housewives"-themed streets and complaints about its density - would be in this receiving area.

"We think that those are really critical water resources for the county," Kluesner said of the southwest part of the town. "Preserving farmland both there and in the contiguous towns, creating a buffer, we think that has strong value."

Combs doesn't disagree with the theory but has doubts that it would work in Verona.

"When we first started this comprehensive plan I was a big proponent of TDR plans," he said. "When I actually sat down and tried to figure out how one would work in the town of Verona, quite frankly I didn't see that many splits that were available ... and the demand for those splits would be so high the developers would just (ask to be annexed to a nearby city)."

The big if

All of this, of course, is rendered essentially irrelevant if the town-city consolidation goes through this year.

The big sticking point - the "urban residential" zoning - already exists in a different form in the city, which can create or change zonings pretty much as it pleases.

And while one study committee originally recommended that the new city adopt the town's newly updated plan if the consolidation referendum passes, the Land Use committee's thorough, 30-page report established much more complex guidelines that would put low-density buffers between urban and conservation areas.

It follows some of the basic ideas presented in the town's plan but acknowledges the likelihood of some areas becoming parts of Madison, of other areas becoming truly urban neighborhoods and of development in other spots around the bypass. The consolidation Steering Committee will bring that plan to the town and city in ordinance form by the summer.

Meanwhile, the town is forging ahead.

There is some instant impact in the plan revision, especially in the northwest and southeast, where it terminates split tracking - which restricts landowners to biting off no more than one chunk of land for a new home per 35 acres.

And the town is staying open to any idea that will help it plan properly for growth - and therefore infrastructure, transportation and budgets - if the consolidation does not happen.

"(Sup.) Manfred (Enburg) and I met with county planners in December and talked briefly about (TDR and PDR)," Combs said. "I think that there are some questions that I think we're willing to work with the county on.

"I'm willing to listen to anything that will give us some planned development."

To see the 46-page land use plan, visit www.town.verona.wi.us and scroll down.