This is a critical time for the communities of north central Wisconsin. There has been a continued reliance on the “old way” of thinking, which has led to the separation of where people live, work, and shop. We did not get where we are overnight and we will not get where we want to be tomorrow; we need a long-term effort to spur change and this effort is the start.

This planning effort will help educate, motivate, and change that way of thinking and incorporate the principles of livability and sustainability into our region. More importantly, we will create a Regional Livability Plan that is focused specifically to our region. The ten county region is home to 441,822 persons and covers 9,325 square miles and includes 21 cities, 39 villages, and 197 towns, in addition, to four tribal nations. Obviously in a ten county region we cannot eliminate the car, or the distances between existing places, but we can reduce trips and we can make more efficient use of our various transit systems. Nor can we eliminate the preference of single family homes on large lots, but we can make sure we are providing a mix of other housing choices. One of our goals is to increase public awareness and encourage appropriate changes in local community zoning ordinances and development practices.

This planning effort will not be easy, but the organizations involved have the capacity and the experience to carry out the activities summarized below. The effort will be led by the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (NCWRPC), and the RLP Committee will include representative(s) from Adams County, Forest County, Juneau County, Langlade County, Lincoln County, Marathon County/Wausau MPO, Oneida County, Portage County, Vilas County, and Wood County. Other groups and organizations will also be involved.

Planning Process:

Overall, we propose a five phase planning process to develop a RLP, with each phase having its own definite outcome. See the planning graphic below. The first phase is general data collection, mapping, and review of existing planning documents. The second phase is developing assessment reports with the Task Forces, where we collect, analyze and establish base line information for transportation, economic development, housing, and land use (natural and built environments). The third phase will utilize the four assessment reports and other information, articulate a vision based on public participation, develop strategies, and prepare the RLP with the Planning Committee. The fourth phase will be the adoption and implementation of the RLP at the regional level, with the long-term goal of each county adopting the RLP and incorporating livability and sustainability principles into their local plans. The final phase will be evaluation and monitoring. Public participation will continue throughout the entire planning process, including meetings, interactive websites, and RLP Committee oversight.

The Regional Livability Plan:

The planning process comes together in the development of the Regional Livability Plan. The Planning Committee will utilize the four assessment reports as the foundation for the development of the RLP. The plan will include Demographics, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, Utilities & Community Facilities, Housing, Transportation, Economic Development, Land Use, Sustainability, Intergovernmental Cooperation, and Implementation. Plan chapters will have three basic sections. The first is “Background” where we examine any previous Federal, state, regional or local reports or studies that relate to the topic. In addition the chapter will identify the planning related issues. The second section is “Inventory” where we collect, analyze and examine data related to the chapter. A variety of tables, charts, and maps will be prepared. Also included will be various federal and state programs that are available to assist local governments, businesses, and other groups. The final section “Goals, Objective, & Policies” will identify measurable benchmarks and livability & sustainability strategies. The RLP will also incorporate the HUD livability principles, which include more transportation choices, promoting equitable & affordable housing, enhance economic competitiveness, support existing communities; coordinate polices & leverage investment, and value communities & neighborhoods.

The focus of this integrated planning process will be on the development of a livability plan that addresses safety improvements, complete streets, traffic calming, multi-modal connectivity, and reduction of conflicts. In addition, we will go further and examine the links between housing, employment centers and the transportation network, all within the context of land use and the environment.

Metrics/benchmarks will also be identified to track not only the implementation of the RLP, but also the overall outcomes in our region. We will ask these basic question, “Are we becoming more sustainable or not?” We will monitor the number of local plans incorporating livability & sustainable concepts, in addition to a variety of other metrics.

The Regional Livability Plan will become the foundation of future planning efforts within the region for the next decade and beyond. As local plans are updated, the RLP will be used to incorporate the principles of livability and sustainability. The data and mapping generated will be available on-line to all communities and the general public to aid local planning efforts. Following the completion of the RLP, the NCWRPC will prepare an Annual Status Report comparing the various indicators identified in the plan to gauge progress. The RLP will be presented to the full Commission of the NCWRPC for adoption and then available to all of the towns, villages, cities, and counties of the region.

Anticipated Outcomes:

The RLP will tie together the four assessment reports into the RLP, which will also be adopted as the Regional Comprehensive Plan under Wisconsin Statute 66.1001, which will lay the ground work for change in our region. Local communities will integrate the RLP into their local plans and adopt policies fostering livability and sustainable practices and policies at the local level. As a result, we will improve the transportation system in the region, reduce impacts of transportation on the environment, reduce costly investments in public infrastructure, and develop access to jobs and centers of trade.

The cost of commuting, especially in rural areas, can be a major part of overall household expenses. Just as compact, mixed-use development can reduces VMT and emissions it can also lower the cost of living. But sprawl can lower the cost of land, thereby reducing the initial cost of housing. Balancing the need for a range of housing alternatives that meet the needs of every income level and those with special requirements, with the imperative of reducing the physical separation of housing, workplaces and shopping to minimize car trips is crucial. Careful planning that allows commercial uses, rental housing, services, community facilities, and jobs all within easy travel distance, while protecting natural resources and offering recreational opportunities is the best way to protect truly affordable housing alternatives.

Local governments utilize a variety of Federal and state programs. Within the planning area that make use of a range of Federal programs, from CDBG to USDA-RD, whose goals are not always aligned to serve the coordinated strategy a Regional Plan specifically dedicated to fostering sustainable development within the region offers. By providing local units of government a template for how policy can be aligned with sustainability goals the RLP will make it easier for these local units, with their limited resources to tailor their programs to a larger vision for the entire region. We hope focus on cost effective and energy efficient growth in the region.

A key component of sustainability is reduction in energy consumption, and transportation is one of the major energy users in America today, as well as a leading source of greenhouse gasses. In addition to the energy efficiency of transport modes – and the RPSD will advocate for public transportation to the greatest degree feasible in a predominately rural area – the pattern of development can have a considerable effect on VMT and emissions. By encouraging compact, mixed-use development patterns overall transportation demand can be reduced without having a negative impact on the quality of life for residents. Land use planning can, over the long-term, have a considerable impact on the need for vehicle trips, thereby reducing energy consumption, emissions and also increasing the opportunities for exercise and physical activity which can have a salutary effect of obesity and public health.

One of the requirements of the Wisconsin comprehensive planning statutes is to identify what are described as “Smart Growth Areas” which are generally brownfields or other abandoned industrial properties suitable for redevelopment. Expanding on this basic inventory of possible infill locations policies that encourage this kind of development will be suggested for local governments to adopt. Redevelopment of sites served with utility connections, where streets and sidewalks already exist, along with commercial services and community facilities can lead to significant cost savings for local governments in terms of providing public services such as schools, police and fire, and transit. In addition to cost savings infill development can reinforce historic and cultural resources and strengthen the sense of community. There have been no significant instances of redevelopment displacing disadvantaged populations to any significant degree within the region, but awareness of this threat will be a part of the planning process.

Currently there are three municipal fixed route transit systems (Merrill, Stevens Point and Wausau) operating in the North Central Region, along with a small inter-city route serving Rhinelander. Study is underway for an inter-city system running from Merrill to Wisconsin Rapids, including Wausau, Mosinee, Stevens Point, and Marshfield. With the fiscal strain affecting local governments and the uncertainty of transit funding levels under the pending reauthorization of the Transportation Bill, expansion of transit service is challenging, but to the extent that the location of affordable housing can be correlated to existing or planned transit service low-income individuals commutes will be improved. Extension of service to such employment centers as industrial parks in Wausau and Stevens Point, or the southern suburban Wausau to Weston service, will also improve access of low-income workers to employment.

This planning effort builds upon our current regional plan that promotes cost-effective and strategic investments that minimize impacts on the environment as well as promote compact private development to efficiently utilize existing infrastructure. In addition we strive to integrate transportation, community and system preservation. Policies developed will reduce potential impacts of transportation activities on the environment. There is also a commitment to the incorporation of nontraditional partners in the planning process. These areas will be expanded on in the process to develop the Regional Livability Plan, which will be adopted and replacing the existing regional plan.

Project Schedule:

We have laid out a five step process, which includes ongoing Public Participation and communication. The project began in late 2012 and will be completed by December 2014.  The RLP will be presented in early 2015 to the NCWRPC.

Following the establishment of the RLP Committee, one of the first actions will be data collection, and preparation of a public participation plan – that will outline efforts to engage the public. The next task will be the development of four assessment reports covering transportation, economic development, housing, and land use. These reports will provide the foundation for the next phase: development of the Regional Livability Plan. Adoption and implementation will be the fourth phase. The final phase will be monitoring and evaluation. Phase 1 will take about 3 months, Phase 2 will require about 9 months, Phase 3 about 9 months, and Phase 4, 3 months. Phase 5 of monitoring and evaluation will be on-going throughout the planning process.

The RLP will be adopted by the NCWRPC. It is also anticipated that the RLP will become the foundation for updates to area county and local comprehensive plans.