MADISON, Wis. - An out-of-town real estate developer arrives in a beautiful, fragile ecosystem ready to tear up land and build mansions. The neighbors, frightened for the good of their neighborhood and wanting to protect their homeland, band together to fight off the developer.
At first glance, the 2006 development dispute in the town of Madison’s unique Arboretum Neighborhood fits this storyline, and is potential fodder for Pixar’s next feature. But any movie about the issue would quickly be bogged down in bureaucratic seesawing and heated rhetoric from both sides, who each see themselves as the best choice for the good of the environment.
The conflict started when Darren Kittleson, a real estate developer from the city of Madison, bought land in the Arboretum Neighborhood, just south of the University of Wisconsin campus, intending to demolish existing properties and build two new homes.
The Arboretum Neighborhood Association, led by Ronald Kalil, who also lives close to the proposed site, fiercely opposed new developments.
After years of hearings, injunctions, environmental tests and lawsuits between the Arboretum Neighborhood Association and Kittleson, who was backed by the Dane County Board of Adjustments, Kittleson ended up selling the land in 2008 to owners who promised not to develop. Kalil claims the confrontation cost the association about $100,000 in out-of-pocket legal fees.
But he thinks the cost was worth it.
“The McMansions Kittleson wanted to build would have caused irreparable damage to the Arboretum,” Kalil said.
“McMansions” refers to modern homes that seem inappropriate in their neighborhood, either stylistically or in size. Kalil claims that the modern designs Kittleson wanted to build would have stood out from the other homes, which were mostly built in the 1930s and integrated within the surrounding forests. Kalil also stated that Kittleson’s homes would have been much larger than the average house in the Arboretum neighborhood.
Kittleson didn’t see the story as black and white. He claims his development plan was vetted by both the town of Madison and engineering experts, and wouldn’t have damaged the Arboretum.
The Arboretum is “the oldest and most varied collection of restored ecological communities in the world,” according to the Arboretum website. The forests, gardens and lake are used by the University of Wisconsin for research, and by surrounding communities for all kinds of environmental recreation.
The land the Arboretum rests on had to be restored from fallow farm land, so it is especially vulnerable to environmental changes, and depends on a large team of volunteers and researchers to maintain its wildlife diversity.
“I didn’t see the point of developing in an area where it didn’t seem like reason was at play,” Kittleson said. “If we’re going to talk from the environmental perspective, that objection is a fool’s game.”
The land Kittleson bought sits on a hill above Lake Wingra. The incline means that water could rapidly carry contaminants from the developments into the ecosystem. A report by the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007 describes runoff protections such as ponds and ditches built into the Arboretum as being in “disrepair” and “eroded,” which causes contaminated water to run off into the Arboretum at “high velocity.”
Kittleson was made aware of the water runoff issue after seeing the first signs of push-back from the neighborhood in 2007. He worked with Vierbicher Associates, a private engineering company, to project the runoff from the developments, which they found would be lower than the current levels. Kittleson then gained conditional approval to continue building.
“The sad thing is, had we been able to do the project, the site would have served for a great working demo of how this technique could be used in residential construction,” Kittleson said.
The Arboretum Neighborhood Association and the Board of Adjustments disagreed on the legitimacy of this “Low Impact Development Plan.” The plan, intended to minimize the development’s effect on the surrounding environment, included a “porous driveway” that is supposed to drain water that runs down pavement.
Kalil argues that porous driveways don’t work in Wisconsin because they freeze in winter.
Another concern was how the new homes would maintain septic systems. To this day, the homes around the development have their own septic systems, which even Kalil describes as “ancient.” Each home drains waste separately, unlike most houses in Madison, which drain to the same treatment plant. The fear is that the older, on-site septic tanks could be less efficient than newer ones connected to the town.
“In general the argument against these systems is that the phosphorous and nitrogen from the waste can get in nearby water bodies and cause algae blooms,” Gregory Fries, an engineer for the city of Madison, said.
While Kittleson would have updated the septic system on the site, Kalil claims that the cost for residents is too large without help from the town. He pointed out that in 2022, when the town of Madison dissolves and the area near Lake Wingra will be absorbed into the city, it is possible that the city will connect the septic systems to its existing network.
According to Kalil, it is unclear whether or not this update from the city is the plan.
“They aren’t doing anything to change the septic system because the resident(s) don’t want to take on that expense,” Kittleson said.
Kittleson also pointed out that two other homes were built in the neighborhood that were even closer to Lake Wingra than his home. While Kittleson never lived in the neighborhood, the homes Kittleson referred to were developed by residents already living in the neighborhood. According to Kalil, this meant the Arboretum Neighborhood Association wasn’t told of the developments until it was too late.
Kalil claims the neighborhood association would have fought the other successful developments just as vigorously if they could have.
“People always point out how out of place those houses look. The older houses were built to integrate with the Arboretum. They seem to be literally hidden within the woods because they are,” Kalil said.
Despite questions about the viability of the single-home septic systems, Kalil is proud that the fight sets a precedent for residents protecting their neighborhood from unwanted development. For now, the neighborhood will retain much of its unique, original charm.
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