Faced with a choice between accepting a diminished role in land planning and pushing other governments to allow more freedom, the Town of Verona is leaning toward the latter.

Nothing was officially decided or acted upon in the July 23 special joint meeting of all its governing bodies, but as the discussion headed toward and a little beyond two hours, more and more options seemed possible and palatable.

For one thing, they recognized, the boundary agreement between the cities of Verona and Madison now requires the town to get "a seat at the table," even if it might seem to be in a kid's chair. And there might be some holes in Fitchburg's no-nonsense clamp-down policy on land division, they said, since that city seems to be planning a little do-as-you-say-not-as-I-do by installing 12-inch water mains down Fitchrona Road, apparently for a subdivision just to the east of the town boundary line.

"If you're allowing something on your side of Fitchrona Road, the implication should be that's acceptable on the Verona side," Town Chair Dave Combs said of the potential argument to Fitchburg. "Whether or not they would accept that, I don't know, but at least it would give us an opportunity to not have property (rights) totally wiped out."

All of this fight might not get beyond Huntington Ridge - the "Desperate Housewives"-themed subdivision that garnered so much attention in the area two years ago for its street names and so much opposition from a few neighbors for its condominiums and suburban densities. After all, the City of Verona holds extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) powers over more of the town than anyone and recently enacted a strict ordinance of its own sharply limiting development outside its borders.

But should the City of Verona relax its standards after completing its comprehensive plan - as city administrator Shawn Murphy suggested it would on the night its ETJ ordinance was enacted - the town would then be prepared to use its new freedoms for economic development.

"I don't think most people realize ... that the development that comes through the town, it's really miniscule compared to what's around us," Combs said, noting there has been just one new building permit in the past two-and-a-half years. "Our property taxes are going up because the value of our land is going up and we don't have the option to annex like cities do."

County conflict

All of this is moot if the county won't allow development, and recent missives from County Executive Kathleen Falk have given every indication that her office has been amassing excuses to squash rural development as much as possible. But even given that, there's some room to maneuver, the town groups concluded.

"Though we would like this to be a clearly procedural sort of affair, it's political," said MSA planner Jason Valerius, who was invited to offer expert opinion on dealing with Dane County. "If you can get your neighbors to show up and say, 'I live next door, and I think this is a good thing,' that carries weight."

The town spent the majority of the night discussing its relationship with the county and how to interpret its policies and adapt its comprehensive plan for clarity, which suggested that any new subdivision proposals - likely controlled by a city - are an afterthought. That leaves just the Brown farm - a long shot, considering nothing was submitted officially before Fitchburg and Verona imposed their rules - a couple of smaller neighborhood plans on the edge of Madison and Huntington Ridge.

The town approved Huntington Ridge's 40-acre plat in early 2006 and has been trying ever since to win approval for the neighborhood plan that would enable its development.

Its first attempt was to plan about 600 acres surrounding it, including the entire area east of the bypass and north of Grandview Road. After getting horrified reactions from Fitchburg and the county - which saw the plan as a manifesto encouraging hundreds of homes in that part of town - and attending a seemingly endless series of staff and committee meetings, town leaders dropped the planning area to 160 acres, essentially Huntington Ridge and the three nearest 40-acre blocks.

The Plan Commission forwarded that revised plan to the Town Board last Thursday, and it is expected to get a vote next month.

The whole mess could be just a giant misunderstanding, but there is ample evidence that Fitchburg and the county never wanted that development to occur in the first place. Fitchburg's application of extraterritorial jurisdiction powers along that border came after a discussion of setting a 50-year plan that could easily involve annexation in that area, and Falk's office has been setting the table for using vetos for at least three years.

It wasn't until the end of 2006 that she signed off on the town's 14-month-old comprehensive plan, and even then it came with an admonition that it was only being accepted with the understanding the town was trying to implement a program for transfer or purchase of development rights (TDR/PDR).

The town has in fact made no such attempt, and comments at last month's meeting about the obsolescence of TDR and high cost and complexity of PDR affirmed the unlikelihood of seeing such a program in action.

"We cannot afford either of those things," Sup. Laura Dreger said.

Instead, it was suggested the town meet the county eye to eye and assert its mandate with the people it represents.

"Most states have a county plan that governs, but we're a big Home Rule state," said Sup. Manfred Enburg, the chair of the Plan Commission. "So basically what the county does is throw it down to you and say, 'Get an agreement, bring it up and then we'll do it.'"

Extraterritorial life

Should the town and Fitchburg make a deal to match development for development on a southward march down Fitchrona Road, as the town-city consolidation boundary agreement seemed to be headed toward, Huntington Ridge might remain a possibility.

"I think that the town needs to meet with the whole (Fitchburg) City Council," said commissioner Deb Paul, pointing out that her experience has shown precedents and fairness to be important to the city and that perhaps leaders there might not have realized the negative impact of the new rules.

It remains to be seen whether the town has any leverage with that logic, or with Enburg's notion that it could contest development in that part of Fitchburg because the town is better prepared to serve it with municipal water.

Former commissioner Jon Baldock suggested the town appoint a liaison to speak with other government bodies to help straighten out nuances and clear up misunderstandings. Already town representatives have been attending City of Verona meetings to gather and disseminate information.

"It's a rapidly evolving situation," noted Sup. Bob Rego, who has been to a few of those himself. "It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to have any of our constituents spending money to try and do land division when the City of Verona is going to say, 'Not going to happen.'"

He also acknowledged that the city has some "valid points" when it argues against certain proposals.

"When they do their research, they're going deeper than we are," Rego said. "Some of the things we passed shouldn't have been passed."

Enburg suggested that the town go even farther - and push for a community approach in the city's comprehensive planning, which started in December.

"Our Plan Commission ought to be trying to get in with the City of Verona and do everything we can to make sure the town is considered in the City of Verona's plan so it's more of a plan for the area and not so much that we're one unit of government or another unit of government," Enburg said.

That argument might not go over so well at City Hall, however, particularly considering Enburg was the most high-profile opponent of consolidation this past spring, having spent his own money to distribute fliers all over town warning of spiraling taxes and costs and claiming that development and planning problems were "imagined."

The conventional wisdom within the city is that it spent two years trying to join forces with the town but now needs to protect its own interests first - hence the new ETJ ordinance. Though the town perspective is being sought like that of other governments, it's unlikely the city's comprehensive plan will be tailored to put town interests on an equal footing.

Valerius noted that in many situations, the town might be best served to simply help people jump through hoops rather than deciding what it thinks is good for the town.

"Your role as a Plan Commission may be transitioning more from one of gatekeeper to one of advocate, where the town has a plan for what you want to see, and then you say (to landowners), 'Here's how we can help you get that passed,'" he said.