Most of the county's 490,000 residents have probably never heard of this commission, let alone know what it does. But in wonky bureaucratic circles, the letter was nothing short of earthshaking. According to Madison Ald. Larry Palm, chair of the commission, "She dropped a bomb and decided to walk away."
Falk's letter proclaimed the commission a failure and asked that it be disbanded.
"Despite years of extraordinary effort by some...commissioners and staff, [the commission] has failed and continues to fail," she wrote on April 14, a few days before her successor, Joe Parisi, took office. "I respectfully suggest that we dissolve [the commission] as soon as possible - certainly before county taxpayers have to pay another $750,000 or more next year."
In an interview, Falk says she does not blame the commission's members but maintains "the institution is not doing its job."
Palm disagrees: "If you start scratching at the surface of her logic, you find it's not grounded in fact." He says Falk's criticism is based on political motivations.
Parisi, meanwhile, is not sure what course to take but agrees the commission needs scrutiny.
"With the cuts we're facing from the state, that's money that could be used on the homeless population or on our seniors," he says. "If we're going to spend that money I'm going to make darn sure it's on something that benefits the county."
The Capital Area Regional Planning Commission was established in May 2007 by Gov. Jim Doyle as a successor to the Dane County Regional Planning Commission. Gov. Scott McCallum dissolved the earlier planning commission in 2002 after 35 communities in the county petitioned him to do so, complaining that it was dominated by urban areas. Falk sued the governor over the move and kept RPC staff on the county payroll, until the new Capital Area commission was formed.
The Capital Area RPC, which currently has a staff of 13, is charged with protecting the county's water and managing development. Its most visible duty is to approve the expansion of the county's sewerage districts.
If a municipality wants to expand beyond its borders by annexing land and extending services, it must get permission to do so from the commission. With this power, officials like Falk hoped the commission would stop sprawl. That hasn't always been the case.
Falk, in her letter, criticized the commission's decision last year to allow the village of DeForest to annex 500 more acres than what DeForest is projected to need in 25 years.
Palm agrees that the DeForest expansion is vast, but says the commission's charge is to protect water quality, which it did. "We can only deny based upon water quality," he says. "There was not data here to show we had water-quality issues."
He adds that if Falk wanted the commission to have greater powers, she should have fought harder to get them when it was formed.
"The commission is doing exactly what it should," Palm says. "If we're unable to find a reason - even if we hate the project - we have to approve."
Palm says the commission has done a good job of getting communities to preserve their water quality. He points to its success at getting communities to have a goal of keeping 90% to 100% of their water local, because "rain that falls in one watershed shouldn't go to another."
The commission was also supposed to come up with "future urban development area" plans, known by the acronym FUDA. These plans are meant to be a proactive way of determining where and how adjacent communities will grow. The plans would settle disputes in border areas where the municipalities differ on how development should occur.
Falk faults the commission for failing to approve a single FUDA. Palm admits the commission has been slow to develop plans, but is getting close to approving two: one for Middleton, Westport, Springfield and Waunakee; another for DeForest, Windsor and Vienna.
Part of the difficulty, Palm says, is that the commission lacks the power to mandate anything, since the state Department of Natural Resources has the authority to overrule commission decisions. That's what happened last year, when the DNR allowed a 200-acre expansion of Mazomanie village that the commission had denied.
Palm says Falk pressured the commission to take a hard line with Mazomanie and deny the expansion. As a result, the DNR negotiated some beneficial changes to the proposal that the commission could have done on its own. That collaborative approach is what is needed: "If the [commission] were to disband, 100% of the decisions would be made by the Walker administration's DNR," Palm says. "I'm surprised that's what Kathleen wants."
Falk argues that there can still be local input into these types of decisions without the commission's continued existence. She says the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission can oversee the expansion of sewerage districts and the FUDA process, with technical assistance from the county planning department.
"If the DNR persists in its pro-sprawl agenda, the [Lakes and Watershed Commission] backed by the county board and county executive is in a better position to fight that battle than [the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission]," writes Falk in her letter.
The commission, meanwhile, wants more power with a bigger budget. Palm says it wants to hire an executive director who could be more hands-on in negotiating with local governments to protect their water and manage growth.
Parisi notes that the commission could be disbanded if the municipalities that compose it vote to do so. Or the county could defund it. "That would likely lead to a court battle," Parisi says. "But it's one option."
Still, the functions of the commission, he says, need to be tackled by some entity.
"Managing our growth is extremely important. When Falk wrote the letter, that certainly forced the issue."
Now, says Parisi, "All options are on the table."