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Return to reason PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 02 December 2009 17:20

A row of new houses on Port Washington’s south side will be distinguished not only by their zero energy use but their sensible size

The houses in the compact subdivision planned for a five-acre rectangle of land just inside the Port Washington city limits along South Division Street will be on the cutting edge of energy technology, yet they will be as remarkable for their reflection of the past as for their look to the future. They will be, in fact, a small but encouraging symbol of a return to reason in the American way of putting roofs over our heads.
The outstanding feature of these houses will be their ability to produce as much energy as they consume. The production will come from roof-mounted solar panels, while reduced energy consumption will result from geothermal heating and cooling, advanced weatherization techniques, windows designed and placed for maximum passive solar heating and the sensible size of the dwellings.

The return to reason is signified by the size of the houses, ample for a family, but smaller than what became the norm for new homes built earlier in this decade. The “housing bubble” that was one of the root causes of the near collapse of the economy was inflated by irresponsible lending and borrowing, but it also derived from the sheer excess of the dimensions of many new houses.

“McMansions” was once a derisive term for the cartoonishly outsized houses that started appearing in suburban subdivisions, but it wasn’t long before their mega-square footage became a standard to which many people building new homes were encouraged to aspire. Everyone wants a big house, the pitch went, so if you want to cash in on the guaranteed, carved-in-stone inflation of home prices (yeah, right) when you sell your house, you better build it big.

The square footage and mortgage and interest payments weren’t the only things big about these houses. So was the energy bill—so much space to heat and cool and fill with energy consuming amenities.

There are signs across the country as the home building industry takes baby steps toward recovery that the McMansion era is over.

The houses in the Division Street tract will also be a departure from contemporary style in that their design will borrow from what Mike Speas, the project’s developer, calls “the Port Washington look.” He’s referring to the gracious multi-story frame houses around the city that are distinguished by high-peaked gable roofs, covered front porches and the absence of garages visible from the street.

The latter detail is enough to make these conservative houses seem radical in an age when the yawning bays of triple garages built into the fronts of newer houses are common enough to beg the question of whether the primary function of these structures is to house humans or motor vehicles.

Separate garages behind the houses, especially appropriate on the deep, narrow lots of the Speas development, will be an aesthetic grace note for the subdivision, one that can be seen in older Port neighborhoods, many of which are served by alleys behind the houses, a highly civilized planning touch that lost favor years ago.

The Plan Commission’s recent approval of the concept of the development was a welcome sign that city planners are getting it when it comes to sensibly sized, energy efficient housing.

Beyond that, city officials are delighted to have the land put to good use at last. The site, looking forlorn amid surrounding development, was acquired by the precursor of We Energies years ago along with hundreds of other acres around its Port Washington power plant and under its transmission lines.   

There is some irony in the fact the homes built on this former We Energies land will be designed to use little or none of the electricity coursing overhead from the nearby power plant.

The wages of dithering PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Tuesday, 24 November 2009 15:20

Failure to act decisively to stop the long-expected advance of giant invading carp now puts Lake Michigan on the brink of an ecological disaster

We’ve heard a lot about dithering lately. It apparently is quite the scourge in Washington. Sarah Palin used the word three times criticizing the Obama administration in a recent interview. The difference between being indecisive and taking the time to evaluate information before making an important decision can be a fine line. On the other hand, most people recognize true dithering, as in failing to act when the need for action is obvious, when they see it. The people of Ozaukee County can see a symbol of the most pernicious form of dithering by looking eastward—at Lake Michigan.

    Would-be decision makers have dithered while one preventable evil after another has befallen Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes. Now possibly the worst consequence to date of Great Lakes dithering has come to pass: The gigantic Asian carp that could wipe out valuable native and introduced fish species are almost in Lake Michigan or may be there already.

    DNA of the carp, a virtually certain indicator of their presence, has been found in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal past an electronic barrier designed stop the carps’ migration to Lake Michigan. That leaves only a frequently opened Chicago lock between the carp and the lake, and in fact there is no good reason to believe they have not already passed through it and are swimming, feeding and breeding in Lake Michigan.

    The carp were imported in the 1960s for a federally funded sewage treatment project in Arkansas. (It’s an indication of type of fish that are about to join the Great Lakes ecosystem that it was brought to this country to eat sewage and its byproducts.) They escaped soon after and have been making their way north through the Mississippi River and its tributaries ever since.

    Much has been made of the dramatic tendency of one variety of the Asian fish, the silver carp that can grow to more than 90 pounds, to leap out of the water and collide with passing boats. But the reason to fear the fish is not so much what can happen to boaters, but what the silver carp and its cousin the bighead carp can do to lake fish species. By consuming the plankton at the bottom of the food chain, these voracious eaters could wipe out desirable fish that support commercial fishing, sport fishing and tourism.

    That would cause serious economic damage, but worse would be the environmental damage of destroying the ecological balance nature intended for the lakes.

    These monsters didn’t sneak up on the lake. Their movements have been tracked for years and for the better part of a decade the need for electronic barriers was discussed. Eventually a site was chosen on the Illinois River downstream from Chicago. Then a powerful barrier was designed and a decision was made to install it. But there was no funding, so more time passed. Then Congress authorized money for the project and the barrier was built, but it wasn’t turned on because of objections from barge operators. When it finally was activated, it was at a strength many thought was too feeble to discourage the huge carp. And now there’s evidence that while the dithering went on, the carp got past the barrier.

    That should be a galling enough lesson to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies involved to stop the dithering and undertake a last-ditch effort to prevent a disaster: Seal the lock (no boat traffic allowed); poison the water between the lock and the carp barrier; do scheduled maintenance of the barrier (which will require further water poisoning while it’s briefly out service), then turn it on with a strong enough current to discourage or kill carp; proceed rapidly with plans to build a second barrier and a berm to contain the carp during flooding.

    This would be done in the hope that no carp have made it to lake, or that not enough of them have made it to create a thriving population. That may be a faint hope, but it would be better than dithering.
Good government work PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 18 November 2009 23:24

Port Washington’s new lake bluff stairway is an example of ‘your tax dollars at work’ in the best sense contrary to government-bashing cliches

 The new stairway from Port Washington’s Upper Lake Park to the public beach is worth a visit for several reasons. For one, the stairs start their descent to the beach from an overlook that extends from the rim of the bluff and presents a view of Lake Michigan that is one of the best in a city of spectacular lake views.  

    Another is that the stairs offer a surprisingly easy way to get to, and even from, the beach, with a smart design that has the staircase positioned diagonally on the face of the bluff; the incline is quite gentle and there many landings where climbers can stop to take a breather and take in more of the view.

    The stairway is also worth checking out as an opportunity to behold a satisfying example of “your tax dollars at work.” The phrase is usually used in the pejorative sense, meant as an ironic comment on government waste and inefficiency. But here it stands for the opposite: the efficient and economical use of public resources for the benefit of taxpayers.

    The stairway was a government project from beginning to end, the product of a collaboration of public works officials and employees of Ozaukee County and the City of Port Washington that was done quickly yet met a high standard of quality and cost less than expected.  

    The topographic engineering was done by Ross Krueger of the city public works department. Ozaukee County Highway Commissioner Bob Dreblow designed the stairs. They were built by workers from the city street department and the county highway department. The cost of the project, which was expected to be nearly $100,000, came to about $50,000.

    Government bashing is a popular sport these days and privatization is routinely invoked by politicians right and left as a panacea to lift the burden of taxes. Sometimes government deserves bashing and private enterprise is often better equipped than government agencies to handle projects, but the stairway serves as a bracing reminder that generalized distrust and contempt for government is foolish.  

    Other local projects have sent the same message. Dreblow’s crew did splendid work on the boardwalks and stairs of the Lions Den Gorge Nature Preserve, which provide access to woodlands and beach and take visitors into the gorge itself, again at exceptionally low cost.

    Several years ago, Port Washington street department workers built an addition to the marina control building that cost taxpayers substantially less than if private sources had been used.

    Stairways and a modest building addition are not rocket science and they’re not health care, but in Ozaukee County they are encouraging symbols of the fact that government can get things right.

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