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Annexation is a tool Cambridge can use to control highway corridor development

It’s rarely the case that annexation fights flip-flop, that development proposed to occur in a town spurs enough concern that a village board or city council considers annexing town land to halt it

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First, a disclaimer: the idea of annexing more of the U.S. 12-18 corridor west of Cambridge from the towns of Deerfield and Christiana is not something the Cambridge Village Board has discussed in public session. And there is no indication – yet — that village board members are privately mulling such a move.

But with village concern mounting about a large proposed solar farm spanning both towns, and about a proposed auto salvage yard in Christiana, all along the highway, it may be time for Cambridge to take a look at its annexation options. It may be time for village officials to refresh themselves on how annexation works under state law and to then consider whether it could be deployed to stop these two projects and future encroachments like them.

In the last two or three decades in fast-growing Dane County, annexation fights have typically taken this course: A city or village wants to grow, and annexes land from an adjacent town to accomplish that. The annexed land becomes part of the city or village, which gains full control over its future.

Towns have long fought annexations, perennially losing. State law isn’t on their side.

There are towns in Dane County, like the Town of Madison between Madison and Fitchburg, that have almost completely been swallowed up by annexations. The Town of Madison has today been reduced to a few tiny pockets of unincorporated land surrounded by city.

It’s rarely the case that annexation fights flip-flop, that development proposed to occur in a town spurs enough concern that a village board or city council considers annexing town land to halt it.

But now, development pressure along U.S. Highway 12-18 west of Cambridge is intensifying enough that the village might want to think about that.

Since December, new information on the scope and location of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC’s utility-scale solar farm, which would line both sides of the highway coming into Cambridge, has alarmed village officials.

And earlier this month, a proposal to locate a vehicle salvage yard in the same corridor, near Rodney Road in the Town of Christiana, across the highway from another longtime existing salvage yard, heightened Cambridge’s worries.

The Cambridge Village Board has so far responded to both proposals with carefully measured diplomacy.

On the solar farm, it is working to set up joint meetings with the towns of Christiana and Deerfield. It has scheduled a Feb. 18 virtual public meeting to allow village residents to share their thoughts and it has created an ad hoc utility committee. It may also register as an intervener is the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s regulatory process.

On the salvage yard, the village board voted last week to send a letter to the Town of Christiana stating its opposition.

There are other limited tools at Cambridge’s disposal. The village has some say, for instance, about development in adjacent towns through its extraterritorial zoning rights. Cambridge’s ETZ area extends about 1.5 miles out from the village limits into the Town of Christiana, encompassing a significant portion of the land proposed for the solar farm.

The border of Cambridge’s ETZ area into Christiana is a jagged line, however, and one of its jogs excludes Rodney Road where the salvage yard is proposed. So, the village has no extraterritorial zoning authority there.

It’s worth noting that neither Christiana nor Deerfield townships officially has much control over the solar farm. The authority to approve or deny it ultimately lies with the state Public Service Commission.

But the opinion of the jurisdiction within which a project lies would seem, in the PSC review process, to matter more than the opinion of a neighboring town or village. If the village fully controlled the highway corridor, it would seem that its voice would have more sway with the PSC in the solar project review.

It may, of course, be too late to affect the outcome of either of these projects. It may not be possible to annex an area where projects of concern are already on the table.

But if the village is concerned enough about development along the highway corridor, those are all questions worth looking into. If not to stop these current project, such a move might control what happens here in the future.

The annexiation process isn’t simple. It would begin with a circuit court filing, and be followed by a required referendum in the affected town. Referendum costs would be paid for by the village.

Town property owners would get to say at the ballot box whether they were for or against becoming part of the village, with the annexation happening if the majority said yes.

There are other routes to annexation, too, including a process initiated by property owners themselves.

More information on how annexations work is in a Wisconsin Department of Revenue guide at: https://doa.wi.gov/DIR/Wisconsin_Annexation_Methods.pdf

If the U.S. 12-18 corridor is vital enough to the village’s future that its development can’t be left to chance, Cambridge should take a look at the annexation tools available, and weigh whether that might be a viable step.

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