It was about a year ago, when trying to explain to one of our county residents the difficulties of trying to change perceptions with regard to the environment, that I first used the analogy, "It's like trying to make waves in a tar pit."
The difficulty develops when people who have the best intentions in mind in trying to preserve our rural character, our water quality, our wildlife diversity, etc. simply do not have the understanding of the negative impact we make each time we try to alter what nature has given us.
It is a given that this county is going to grow. Housing developments are exploding onto the landscape like popcorn. The trick, and one that as a county we have largely failed at to this point, is developing in such a way as to minimize additional infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, stormwater ponds, septic systems, etc. to minimize our expense, and at the same time avoid developmental practices that are destructive to the environment, and our rural character of life.
In Crow Wing County, we are currently behind other rural areas of the U.S. in this respect. Our typical 80-acre housing development chops up the acreage into 13-16 five-acre parcels, each with their own septic system, house and garage. Other developments take the butchering a step farther, creating 30-40 two-acre lots where there formerly stood a large expanse of lake-and-wildlife protecting forest. Each of these development types does several damaging things to our environment.
First, they fragmentate the land. Scientists only recently understand the effect this practice has on many species of wildlife. In much of the Midwest, for many years, it was assumed that it made no difference whether forestland was left in one huge chunk, or in many small ones. Farmland and housing developments followed this thinking, and much of our deep, old growth forest was chopped into smaller pieces. Unfortunately, we have since discovered that many of our wildlife species can only survive in deep, old-growth forest. Our song bird populations, for example, have dropped over 40 percent in recent years because their deep woods nests are now accessible by the edge dwelling cowbirds, who are now able to place their eggs in the songbird nests. The cowbird young develop more quickly, and soon are able to starve out the young songbirds. This is only one example of many, but the point is made; fragmentation hurts our wildlife diversity. This is also, of course true of plant diversity as well. Many species of edible mushrooms, or plants such as the yellow lady slipper, are found in the deep woods.
The larger expanses of woods also help our water quality. Large, uninterrupted expanses of forests develop thick duff layers and soils that absorb nutrients that would otherwise head for our lakes. The tree canopy protects against rain erosion, keeping stormwater runoff from becoming a problem. The roots systems in the forest help to purify water before it contaminates our groundwater, something that turfgrass lawns are unable to do.
Yet much of the thinking that has perpetuated these damaging developments stems from a desire for privacy. Many of the people buying into these developments come from the cities, and the mentality is basic: "I didn't move here from the cities so I could see into my neighbor's living room!" Whereas that may be true, the people who have lived here for years did not come here to see their lakes and wildlife destroyed either. There needs to be a form of compromise, one that can save money, save the environment, protect our rural character and keep some degree of our natural environment intact.
The answer to that dilemma for many parts of the U.S. has been the cluster development. To simplify the difference between the cluster housing development and the standard PUD (Planned Unit Development) type; the cluster development develops 80 acres into 13-16 lots as well as the standard PUD. The difference is that the lots are compacted together into 1 or 2 acre parcels, so that the entire construction area would impact no more than 16 to 32 acres, and the bulk of the acreage is left in a large expanse of untouched natural forest.
The advantages of this type of development are many. From an economic standpoint, the development is less expensive for the developer. There are fewer roads and paved surfaces necessary, thus allowing for cheaper road maintenance. Emergency vehicle access is easier and more efficient. A common septic system can be used as opposed to many separate units (this is also good for the environment), and storm water management becomes immensely easier.
From the standpoint of the residents, the community becomes easier to manage, waste removal is cheaper, and the residents all have access to a community owned expanse of natural, untouched forest land, which can be put into a conservation easement to prevent future destruction by development. The land can then be used for hiking, bird watching, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, or any number of other recreational activities. The rural character of the county is maintained, and the large expanse of forest or wetland is still there for protection of nearby lake water and preservation of wildlife diversity. And as to seeing into a neighbor's living room, try pulling the drape. The sound of the songbirds outside will more than drown out any living activities of your neighbors that you might otherwise hear.
These developments are not a new concept, many communities across the nation have incorporated them into their comprehensive plans, and many successful projects have been developed even in this state. Crow Wing County, however, one of the most environmentally dependent counties in the state, and perhaps the county with the most to gain, and to preserve, by making use of the cluster development, continues to hang on to the mistakes of the past with regard to housing and subdivision.
It is really time to push for change here in the north country if we truly want to preserve what brought us here in the first place.
(Lucas is a Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District technician.)
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