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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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Epic Systems creates 'green sprawl'
Verona campus is eco-smart, but encroaches into the countryside
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Credit:Timothy Hughes

When Mike Slavney looks at the 400-acre Verona campus of Epic Systems Corp., he's impressed.

"It's a visible presence out there," says the veteran planner. "It's cool, and it's enormous. It's urban. The intensity is extraordinary. Looking at it coldly as a piece of development, it's a model in many respects."

Slavney, director of planning at Vandewalle & Associates, points to the costly grass-covered underground parking and other careful environmental steps taken to protect the nearby Sugar River from stormwater runoff that might destroy the precious coldwater trout fishery.

And then there's Epic's business itself: cutting-edge electronic medical records software providing "quality jobs that lead to quality careers," he says. "It helps us retain and attract ambitious young and technically savvy people."

As Isthmus noted in its cover story last week, Epic is an antidote to the "brain drain" that experts say hobbles the Wisconsin economy. It provides good, challenging jobs to college graduates who might otherwise leave the state.

The problem, Slavney argues, is that in moving its headquarters from west Madison at the old Odana School, 5301 Tokay Blvd., to west Verona, Epic has unleashed the dogs of urban sprawl in Dane County and beyond.

Most everyone will take a 20-minute work commute in stride, he explains, and a good number will tolerate 45 minutes. "Epic's move extends the commuter shed out that many more minutes, he says. "It not only put Verona on the map as an employment center, but it pushed the central Dane County employment cluster 20 minutes west. Now Darlington is within that boundary and places beyond Dodgeville. Before Epic, they weren't."

The issue of Epic's contribution to urban sprawl is complex because the emerging software giant is going the extra yard - make that the extra 10 yards - to design an environmentally sensitive corporate campus.

Epic has forsworn asphalt parking lots for buried parking ramps, storm sewers for natural infiltration, and golf-course-style lawns for a mostly no-mow campus.

Eighty percent of the 400 acres will be left unbuilt, notes Stephen Dickmann, Epic's chief administration officer. That's far more greenery than if the land had been platted for traditional suburban housing.

"Our goal is to be as earth-friendly as possible while still running an efficient operation," he says.

Epic's two huge underground parking ramps - 1,500 and 2,000 stalls apiece, one finished, one in construction -eliminate the need for a 20- to 40-acre asphalt parking lot.

"The stormwater runoff and heat generated by it would be incredible," Dickmann says. Instead, the ramps are designed to have 18 to 24 inches of soil on top planted with grass. This allows rainwater to filter in and flow to retention ponds, eventually settling into the water table.

"We turned parking into something that isn't ugly and all impervious surface," he says. "Our water is held on site. It slowly sinks in, so you don't get thermal pollution or sediment going into the Sugar River."

Who can argue with that?

But Epic's most impressive foray into sustainable design may be its decision to go full-throttle into geothermal heating and cooling - the epitome of a renewable fuel.

"The thermal conductivity in this area is fabulous," says Dickmann, who explains that Epic's first campus has 576 vertical bore shafts, each 300 feet deep. These take advantage of the earth's constant natural temperature (53 degrees or so about 20 feet below the surface) to heat and cool the campus.

Geothermal technology will also be used in the second campus now in the early stages of construction. And Epic is looking closely at building a "dry" biomass plant that would produce methane from fermented garden waste, lake weeds, grass and other digestible matter.

"Our goal would be to not do something like ethanol, where you're converting food into energy," Dickmann says. "Ours is to take waste and extract the energy from it and still have a valuable end-product: compost."

The biomass system, if built, could produce 5% to 10% of Epic's energy needs and help the company manage its peak-energy demand.

But do such benefits outweigh the environmental costs of Epic leapfrogging into the countryside and creating a new employment hub where corn used to grow?

For all the good Epic is doing, Slavney says it's "symbolic of something more troubling" - sprawl that heightens demand for costly road building while undercutting mass transit.

"We already know that housing is dispersed not only through Dane County but in our collar counties as well," says Slavney. "We get a lot of commuting into central Dane County by these people.

"That housing dispersion makes it difficult to keep up with highway congestion," he says. "When employment disperses as well, then both ends of the commute are difficult to serve with transit. Cars with one person are almost the only option for a lot of people."

Slavney, who grew up in Midvale Heights and now lives there again, has been surrounded by Epic most of his life. He even went to the old Odana School, which was later converted into Epic's headquarters and is still occupied by the software giant.

"Epic remains my neighbor," he says. "I very much appreciate what they've done for supporting the UW Research Park and Westgate by renting space. They've helped keep my neighborhood a vital and interesting place to live.

"But from a growth-management standpoint," Slavney adds, "I would have liked them to have not built their new headquarters so far out."

Early on, Epic did consider expanding the Tokay Boulevard offices to include the nearby Westgate Mall. But Madison officials, fearing a public backlash, refused to sell Epic the old school park that was also needed for the site.

That decision has been lamented as stunningly shortsighted by both environmentalists and Madison business boosters.

"Epic is a good business to have kept in the city," says Supv. Brett Hulsey, an activist who sees the Verona campus as a sprawl generator. "Epic is the big one that got away. The real question is, what's Madison's strategy to hold on to those big fish?"

That point is hit harder by Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park and chair of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. "For all the emphasis that Madison puts on infill development, why it couldn't have been a priority in the Epic discussion is beyond me."

Everyone is happy that Epic chose to build in Dane County, Bugher notes. "But the fact that the city of Madison couldn't put together an urban infill project to accommodate Epic was frustrating.

"Now maybe it was not meant to be," Bugher concedes. "But I have the impression they could have been persuaded to do an urban redevelopment. That was clearly in their cards."

Soon after Madison vetoed the park sale, Epic switched gears and began searching for a large suburban tract - something that land-short Madison struggled to put together for Epic's consideration. That was good news for Verona, which was prepared to open its pocketbook to capture Epic. And it was even better news for Epic, which subsequently grew so fast that even an expanded headquarters on Tokay Boulevard might have quickly proved inadequate.

Though only a bedroom community, Verona was ready to annex land and to offer Epic the sort of subsidy that Madison officials refused.

Verona's pledge of tax-increment financing - about $11 million for site improvements and $9 million for an underground parking ramp - prompted head shaking from Madison officials. Madison offered far less site-development aid - and no TIF at all - for Epic to build on the city's far west side.

"A company may be doing real well now, but if something shifts, you don't want to be hanging out there stuck for the costs of the infrastructure," Madison TIF coordinator Joe Gromacki said in 2002, reflecting the city consensus.

But Epic's growth in Verona has far exceeded the performance benchmarks set in its 2002 development contract with the city and has more than justified Verona's gamble on the software company.

As Shawn Murphy, the city administrator, points out in a memo, Epic had, as of Jan. 1, 2007, created $208 million in assessed property value, well more than the $45 million it promised, and delivered 2,550 new jobs after promising just 600.

A second phase of Epic construction - including a subsidy for an even larger underground ramp - will likely push the company's investment in Verona to more than $500 million.

"I'm in awe," Murphy says of Epic's role in Verona. "There's nothing to compare it to." The campus now accounts for a full 15% of Verona's tax base.

Epic has also proved a good corporate citizen, donating a $180,000 fire truck and $40,000 in 2006 and $55,000 in 2007 for various civic programs. Earlier, Epic provided 300,000 bricks for building the new Verona library and Glacier View Elementary School.

Mindful of the traffic implications of its suburban site, Epic also covers Verona's tab, $64,200 in 2008, for Route 55, the special Madison Metro line serving the Epic campus. Daily ridership averaged 108 in the first quarter of 2008, according to Metro.

Verona, it seems, has done just fine aiding Epic. Madison's cautiousness, on the other hand, cost the city a major employer and triggered a major suburban development that will have a lasting impact on Dane County's growth.

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