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The rewards of living small PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 02 July 2013 14:22

Subdivisions in Belgium and Port Washington are putting a bright new face on the old concept of compact, walkable neighborhoods

Even as American families have shrunk, their houses have grown. In 1970, the average family size was 3.14 persons, compared to just over 2.5 today. Forty-three years ago, those 3.14 people lived in houses that averaged 1,400 square feet. Today’s 2.5-person families live in houses that are nearly double that size with an average of 2,700 square feet.

    A meeting of the Village of Belgium Plan Commission last week offered a revealing gauge of the changes reflected in the above numbers. To accommodate a promising development, the commission recommended creation of a new zoning district that would allow 1,500-square-foot house on lots 50 feet wide. The decision was needed because homes and lots that small are currently not permitted under Belgium zoning.

    The commission did the right thing, and the Village Board should ratify the recommendation when it meets on July 8. The new zoning will facilitate the creation of the compact neighborhood envisioned for the New Luxembourg subdivision.

    The houses, small by today’s standards, but with three bedrooms and two bathrooms more than ample for families with children, are in keeping with the development’s inspiration, the country of Luxembourg, ancestral home of many Belgium area families. Houses in Luxembourg as in most of Europe, a continent that lacks America’s broad spaces, tend to be small by American standards.

     Despite the traditional European influence, it would be wrong to assume the subdivision will be old fashioned or quaint. On the contrary, it is part of a burgeoning movement in the U.S. toward neighborhoods that concentrate homes within walking distance of shopping and recreational areas.

    The trend is new, but its roots reach to a time when smaller houses and yards were the comfortable norm. Examples can be found in the old neighborhoods on Port Washington’s near southwest side, where rows of two-story homes sit on narrow lots, some as close to a neighbor’s dwelling as the 15 feet planned in the Belgium subdivision. The properties have deep backyards with space for garages that, unlike some of today’s outsized manses that flaunt triple garage bays on their fronts, are hidden behind the homes.

    Generations of Port Washington children grew up in these neighborhoods, playing with packs of neighbor kids, walking to schools and playgrounds.

    A modern iteration of that way of living is finding considerable success in a development on Port Washington’s Division Street. On a rare parcel of vacant land only a few blocks from the city center, small two-story houses are going up on lots of about half an acre.

    The development, called the Terraces at Mineral Springs, is inspired by older neighborhoods and, in a nod to one of the sensible features of that era, requires garages to be placed in back of the houses.

    The modest-sized dwellings in the compact, walkable neighborhoods springing up in various parts of the country lend themselves to energy efficiency with smaller spaces to heat and cool. Capturing solar energy to power the house has proven to be practical in such houses.     

    Small  houses with close neighbors are not everyone’s cup of tea, That’s evident, for example, in the Town of Grafton, where farmland is being converted to subdivisions featuring expansive lots and mega-square-foot houses. Such homes remain the dream of many Americans. Nothing wrong with it—there is something to be said for unrestricted space, inside and outside.

    But one thing is certain, the families enjoying that style of living will be spending a lot more time in motor vehicles than the residents of developments like New Luxembourg and the Terraces at Mineral Springs.

Everyone should pay for sidewalks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 June 2013 14:00

Every street should have sidewalks, but the policy of assessing only the property owner for their cost should be discarded out of fairness

Port Washington natives Don and Virginia Laubenstein have lived in their modest house on Summit Drive for 47 years. They raised their children there, paid their taxes (hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), carefully maintained and improved their property and during their working years and in retirement —Don had a long career as Port Washington police officer—have been responsible, contributing citizens of their hometown. And then they get a bill from the city for $3,104 for sidewalks to be installed this summer.

    What’s wrong with this picture? It’s not the sidewalks. It’s the city’s policy of making property owners pay for building sidewalks.

    Sidewalks are facilities necessary for the safety and convenience of the public, and they should be paid for by all city taxpayers. If the sidewalks that will cross the Laubensteins’ property were financed out of general tax revenue, the cost to city taxpayers would average about a dollar each. Under the policy in effect in Port Washington, only the Laubensteins will get the bill, and it will be 3,000 times as much.

    That policy is manifestly unfair, yet the city can easily defend it. It’s the norm. A majority of Wisconsin municipalities charge property owners for new sidewalks. Port Washington, in fact, is more generous than many communities in that while it charges property owners to install sidewalks, it no longer assesses for sidewalk repair. None of this, however, makes the treatment of the Laubensteins and the other Port residents who have received sidewalk assessments this year and in the past right.

    The power to levy special assessments for elements of civic infrastructure is rooted in the long legal history of American municipalities, but if it ever made sense for sidewalks, it doesn’t today. Planners have come to understand the importance of communities accommodating citizens who choose to, or have to, walk. Sidewalks are essential for walking safety. It should be the responsibility of the entire community, not individual property owners, to provide them.

    Nearly all of the property owners who appeared at last week’s Common Council meeting to protest sidewalk assessments claimed the sidewalks to be installed on their property aren’t needed. We disagree. Streets should have sidewalks. No one should have to walk in the street. The problem is not the sidewalks. It’s how they’re paid for.

    Sidewalk assessments are so unpopular and the source of so much distracting conflict that they are counterproductive to the goal of expanding sidewalk coverage. The city’s policy of not charging property owners for sidewalk repair is sensible but confusing. If it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain sidewalks, why isn’t it the city’s responsibility to pay to build them?

    A number of enlightened communities in various parts of the country have stopped inflicting the inequity of sidewalk assessments on their citizens, and Port Washington should join them.

    Weaning the city off sidewalk assessments in a time of tax levy limits is not be easy. But it should be done because sidewalks are not an optional amenity—they’re a requirement that should be a shared responsibility.

Plug the drain holes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 19 June 2013 15:35

With lake levels threatened by climate change, the need to close the manmade outlets that are depleting Lake Michigan-Huron is urgent

When sodden 2013 gets tiresome, think of desiccated 2012. Cool, rainy days, fog, soggy lawns and muddy gardens take on a certain charm when compared to last summer’s superheated, landscape-withering aridity.

    Or think of Lake Michigan and what was done to it by that blast furnace of a summer. Like a neglected pot of water that boils away on a stove, it lost so much water to evaporation, with the drought holding back replenishment, that it dropped to the lowest level ever recorded.  

    The wet winter and spring have been a tonic for the lake, which as risen nearly two feet from its low point.

    Lake watchers are heartened, but the realists among them know this is likely temporary relief. The climate-change forecast predicts that frequent droughts will steadily deplete Great Lakes water.

    The list of specific environmental and economic consequences of this is long, but perhaps the scale of the problem can best be understood by simply noting that climate change is going to shrink the world’s most valuable freshwater resource.

    The concept of reversing climate change is still in the fantasy stage, where it will remain until governments accept the scientific consensus that man is causing global warming by overloading the atmosphere with carbon. But the means exist now to slow or even reverse the loss of water from Lake Michigan and Lake Huron due to some manmade causes, and they should be employed.

    The two connected lakes are losing an enormous volume of water, perhaps more than nature accounts for in a drought-ridden year, through manmade outlets at Chicago on Lake Michigan and the St. Clair River at the foot of Lake Huron. These must be closed.

    Chicago diverts about 2.1 billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan and returns none of it to the lake. The water flows from the lake into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that flushes the city’s sewage into the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The canal should be closed and Chicago should treat its wastewater and return it to the lake—like every other city on the lake does.

    No exotic technology is needed; it’s just a big project that would cost an estimated $3.5 billion, and probably have to be paid for by the federal government.
There is strong resistance to it because the canal supports shipping traffic with substantial economic impact.

    Recently support for closing the canal came indirectly from a surprising source—the Asian carp that are threatening to ruin the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. The threat of the giant carp, which are numerous in the Illinois River, reaching the lake through the sanitary canal prompted Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to express support for shutting the canal’s Lake Michigan opening, which he rightly called the only sure way to keep the fish out of the lakes.    

    The combined benefits of conserving lake water and keeping out what could be the worst invasive species yet would seem to justify any financial or political cost.

    Meanwhile, an engineering study commissioned by a Canadian conservation organization found that even more water than is diverted by Chicago is leaving the lake through the St. Clair River, where a botched dredging operation by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s opened the channel—referred to by many as the “drain hole”—so wide that it is being blamed for nearly two feet of lost lake level.

    This, too, is an easy, if expensive, fix that must be done.

    The lakes need help, and there are only a few ways to do that. The United States, like many countries, has not demonstrated the will to take steps to counter climate change. And some acts of nature are purely that—natural forces uncontrollable by man. But these are all the more reasons to do what human effort is fully capable of doing to help ensure the vitality of the Great Lakes—correcting the manmade problems that are depleting their water.

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