ALEC LUHN/Herald photo

It's a bright Monday morning in the town of Dunn, warm but windy. The sun shimmers on the surface of Lake Kegonsa in the distance and on the hoods of a stream of cars being parked along the shoulder of Schneider Road.

The chirping of "chorus frogs" seems to echo across the open expanse beside the vehicles, a barren cornfield that might one day house a 520,000-square foot animal disease research center.

The University of Wisconsin has chosen the parcel of university-owned land in the rural township, 15 miles south of campus, as its proposed site for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.

The Wisconsin site is currently one of 17 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering for the location of the facility, which would research foreign diseases that could affect both animals and humans.

University officials have cited proximity to airports, the interstate and the UW campus as benefits of the location.

The UW proposal has also sparked opposition, however, both from Dunn residents and the Dane County Board, which will likely vote tonight on a resolution against building NBAF in Dunn.

Three subcommittees have already passed the resolution, although the executive committee amended the document, adding a pledge to help the university find an alternate location.

Appearances aside, this was no ordinary Monday morning in Dunn — the Department of Homeland Security was slated to visit the UW campus and the proposed site.

The 20 cars eventually parked on the side of Schneider and Dyerson roads displayed signs with an X-ed out "NBAF." Roadside signs to this effect marched in orderly processions along Schneider and Highway 51, which connects the site to Interstate 90.

Dunn resident and Appleton patent lawyer Greg Corrigan has led much of the resistance to the UW proposal through his "Stop NBAF Kegonsa" campaign.

Corrigan organized Monday's event in an effort to express the town's disapproval to the selection committee, which will consider "community acceptance" as one of its criteria.

"DHS doesn't care so much what people say as what they'll do," Corrigan said.

Lifetime Dunn resident Dawn Wethal, a cheerful grandmotherly figure in a windbreaker and shades, said she was willing to wait for the committee in front of the site, no matter how long it takes. She camped out with a lawn chair and a camcorder, ready to sit all day.

"I really would hate to miss it," she said.

An "expression of interest"

The DHS visit marked the latest step in a process that began in March 2006, when Chancellor John Wiley submitted an expression of interest to the Department of Homeland Security.

Wiley's expression of interest asked DHS to consider building the facility on a 160-acre tract of university-owned land adjacent to the UW's Kegonsa Research Facility.

Before it submitted the proposal, university officials met with town Chairman Ed Minihan and Renee Lauber, land-use manager, to inform them of the university's intent to file an expression of interest.

Lauber said she and Minihan expressed several concerns with the proposed facility and told UW that Dunn's land-use plan would not allow for the facility.

"Our vision for that land is land, not an 11-acre block of cement," she said.

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Associate Dean for Research Irwin Goldman, who oversees research at the college and helped draft the expression of interest, admitted the university recognized there would be "issues" with placing the site there but said it was too early in the process to address them.

"If we were to make the short list, … the town will get an opportunity to express its concerns," he said, referring to the public commentary process DHS plans to initiate at the final three sites it will pick this summer.

Although it will be nonbinding if approved, the County Board Resolution lays out Minihan and Lauber's main concerns.

It notes the facility, besides conflicting with the town's highly developed rural land-use program, would require a new high-capacity water service and would overtax the existing sanitation system.

In addition, the resolution said NBAF would likely cause transportation problems with increased traffic on nearby roads, including the little-traveled Dyerson Road, a state-designated Rustic Road.

"You gotta find cures, but not here"

The resolution does not address the safety risks of the proposed facility, which DHS has planned as a replacement for its existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of Long Island.

Nevertheless, the dangers posed by a facility studying Biosafety Level 4 agents, the most dangerous of disease pathogens, is a concern of many citizens, including Wethal.

"It's on an island for a reason," she said. "I'm not against research, that's for sure — you gotta find cures, but not here."

Dr. Alan Pearson, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, agreed that it is not uncommon for researchers at facilities like NBAF to be exposed to diseases. However, he added cases in which they fall seriously ill — such as a researcher studying a bioweapon agent at Texas A&M did in April 2006 — are "less common, but it happens."

As for the actual release of a pathogen into the population, the level of risk "depends on the quality of containment and practices."

Dr. James Tracy, associate dean for research in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, said a combination of containment technology and procedures at NBAF would make the risk of public exposure "extremely small."

"There are redundant safety systems to prevent for human error and human procedures that make up for possible errors in technology," Tracy said.

Employees would be retrained annually in all procedures, he said, and the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture would periodically review the procedures in place.

A transparent organization?

Pearson said that the most important factor in creating a safe and secure facility is a "transparent operation."

However, transparency is not guaranteed at NBAF, which he said might conduct classified research.

"In my opinion, it's likely classified research will take place there," Pearson said.

The Sunshine Project — a Texas-based organization that tracks U.S. biological disease research — already faulted UW in a 2006 report for its reluctance to release information about the NBAF proposal.

"If they are already unwilling to be forthcoming about some of their research, then things are only going to get worse if they get the NBAF," Sunshine Project Director Ed Hammond said.

Dr. Butch Powell, a board member of the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition who parked his car along Schneider Road on Monday, said that besides land use, many members of the coalition were worried about safety and weapons research at the facility.

A specific concern was that NBAF would be controlled by DHS, on which Powell said, "We have no effective control and understanding, really, of whether they cross the line between weapons research and animal health research."

The division between the two types of research is blurry at best, as any of the diseases the facility will study could potentially be used as weapons. NBAF would research zoonotic diseases, which can affect both animals and humans.

Pearson said the facility would be "geared primarily toward defending against deliberate biological attacks."

The university and DHS, though, maintain that it would focus on diagnosis and prevention of disease — and not on national defense.

"[NBAF] is clearly not … a weapons facility," Tracy said. "It is not designed to build new weapons."

He said the official name of the "defense facility" does not accurately reflect what its predecessor, the Plum Island center, actually does.

Protecting the "Parade of Prairies"

Despite the controversy over the possibility of public health risks and bioweapons research at the proposed NBAF, the county board resolution and Dunn officials identify the town's land-use policy as the main reason against the proposed facility.

"I see it as a fight between land use and poor planning," Corrigan said of his campaign against NBAF.

Dunn has received widespread recognition for its efforts to protect farmland and open space, winning three national awards for land-use management, as well as inclusion in the national Environmental Success Index.

Since 1996, Dunn residents have been required to pay several hundred dollars of extra taxes each year toward this end, according to Lauber. The money funds a program to buy development rights from farmers.

Former town chairman and UW professor Calvin DeWitt helped the town to develop its stewardship ethic in the '70s.

"The town of Dunn is extremely unusual in the sense that our people pay attention to what's happening in their own landscape," he said.

A shared love for the land promotes a "long-range activism" for land stewardship, DeWitt said. Whereas another community might put on a "Parade of Homes," Dunn has a biennial "Parade of Prairies."

The plan allows for a wide variety of uses, including farmland, prairies and even facilities, such as the UW's Synchrotron Research Center.

It does not include NBAF.

Why Dunn?

The town's strong stance on land use has led many to wonder why UW did not choose a different site or propose any alternatives to Dunn.

Five of the 17 sites that DHS is currently considering are alternatives to other sites on the list.

UW only considered land it already owned in drawing up its proposal, according to Tracy.

"We're committed to Dunn," he said.

Goldman said that the Dunn site was chosen over other sites due to its accessibility and infrastructure.

The county board resolution was nevertheless amended by the executive committee last Thursday to include a pledge to work with UW and DHS to find an alternate site in the Dane County area.

In addition, the university said several communities have come forth since the proposal to express interest in hosting NBAF or similar facilities.

One of these was the Sun Prairie Research Park, which is located about 14 miles from the center of campus.

"From a land standpoint, we would have been able to accommodate this facility," said Neil Stechschulte, the economic development coordinator for the city of Sun Prairie. "I think we would have been a competitive site."

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, whose letter of support was the only letter from a local government official included in UW's proposal, said she would likely support other sites, as well.

"I support the facility, and there are probably a variety of good sites," Falk said in an interview with The Badger Herald.

At the same time, she stood by her letter of support, despite land-use concerns with the site.

"[The university isn't] holding that land for nothing," Falk added.

DeWitt disagreed, however, noting that UW needed the 140-acre parcel for the Synchrotron facility.

"It's very important that they're not pressed upon by development all around it," he said.

More important are the land-use values Dunn follows.

The proposed site, DeWitt said, would be an affront to the land-use ethic that makes the town a desirable place to live.

"I still get notes via e-mail," he said. "'How do I get to live in the town of Dunn?'"