Thank (or blame) developers for how our communities look

“One thing I struggle with is the density.”

That was Grafton Village President Jim Brunnquell’s comment on a subdivision proposal presented to the Plan Commission last week. He made a good point, though he may have expressed it in an understatement.

The subdivision would be a model of struggle-worthy density. Ninety-three houses would be built on a mere 40 acres of land west of Port Washington Road and south of Falls Road. After streets and other infrastructure needs are accounted for, the remaining land would yield home sites with an average lot size of less than one-fourth of an acre. The planned houses would not mimic the small scale of the lots—they would be big enough to justify the developer’s target selling price of $400,000 per home.

This is an unusually packed development for land located on the village outskirts (part of it is currently in the Town of Grafton and would be annexed). Still, that doesn’t disqualify it from consideration. There are positive aspects to dense residential developments, including efficient use of land and public infrastructure and in some cases a more favorable environmental impact than that of sprawling subdivisions with huge lots gobbling up the natural landscape.

If the history of the development of Grafton and other Ozaukee County communities is a guide, the future of this subdivision plan is quite predictable. Village officials will express concerns about the density and some public works issues involving streets and sewers. There will be some negotiation, the developer will agree to fix the problems and perhaps make a token reduction in the number of lots, and the subdivision will be approved. Grafton’s tax base and population will grow by nearly 100 families clustered in a very compact subdivision.

This is a familiar pattern in the growth of Ozaukee cities and villages. Local governments, of course, have a significant role in planning. They hire planners to create master plans and have the authority to review and veto projects and enforce zoning and building codes. But at the end of the day, it is the developers and their visions, investments and business plans that are most influential in determining the look and feel of a community.

What is surprising about this is how well it works. There are unfortunate exceptions, but overall the goals of developers and planners align frequently enough to contribute vitality and prosperity to our burgeoning communities.

The City of Port Washington is now engaged in a new test of developer-designed growth. The Prairie’s Edge subdivision, for which ground is about to be broken, will be the biggest in Port’s history. Its wholehearted embrace by city officials came as a surprise to some observers.

The subdivision will consume 35 acres of land overlooking Lake Michigan on the city’s south side. It was inevitable that this tract, one of the few undeveloped areas of its size available on the lakeshore in southeast Wisconsin, would be developed when Wisconsin Electric decided to part with it. But the generally held expectation was that the proximity to the lake would encourage its development as a neighborhood of gracious homes that would add significant taxable valuation to the city while respecting lakeshore aesthetics.

If completed as planned by its development company, Black Cap Halcyon of Milwaukee, Prairie’s Edge will deliver a valuation increase of roughly $60 million over the next five years. You can’t blame city officials for being delighted by the prospect. Said City Administrator Mark Grams: “That’s a lot of tax base. . . it will help keep the tax rate down for everyone.”

This tax base will not come from a lakeside residential neighborhood, however. Prairie’s Edge will be a commercial development to a significant degree, including a large three-story commercial building. Its residential component will have multi-story apartment buildings in addition to single-family homes.

In blessing the plan, city officials had to set aside some obvious concerns: Does an extremely dense development that includes commercial buildings belong on semi-rural land next to the lake? Will the businesses of Prairie’s Edge compete with merchants in downtown Port Washington, which has begun to thrive after years of storefront vacancies? How will the roads serving the subdivision, currently a county road and a couple of countrified streets, handle the traffic generated by the development, which besides commercial traffic will include the vehicles of the expected 500 residents of (speaking of density) the 238 residential units in the subdivision?

Regardless of the answers, Prairie’s Edge will stand as a classic example of how developers, rather than municipal planners, are the true designers of our communities.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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