Scott County officialdom is trying to execute a delicate dance step in the face of those who worry that a major upgrade of County Road 8 will destroy its countrified charm.

They're insisting that it is not an expansion project -- while acknowledging that they are thinking about widening at least a stretch of it to four lanes.

They say its traffic volumes don't justify an expansion at the moment -- and also that those volumes are getting close.

If opponents feel they're hearing doubletalk, however, the county is getting some back. It's clear that there is no single opinion in the rural townships as to how or whether to proceed.

"We could improve this road and still have it be very scenic," township supervisor and farmer Gerald Williams told a forum on the project in New Prague last week. "They aren't going to take the lakes away. The church on the hill will still be there."

The anxiety surrounding the corridor study has to do with more than just scenery. It touches on the metropolitanizing of a rural area, encouraging traffic and development pressure that would bear down on farming and other rural pursuits.

There also are questions as to whether it would make more sense to turn County Road 2 into the major east-west artery. That corridor could link or nearly link some actual communities, stretching from Elko New Market to just north of New Prague across to Belle Plaine.

Without that, it feels to some more like the county taxpayer is paying for a roadway that will be used mainly by others, in a grand regional sense -- for instance, to eventually connect Interstate 35 with Hwy. 169.

The county's experts are stressing tangible positive results from improving County Road 8, notably a reduction in danger.

"We're looking at safety improvements such as wider paved shoulders and turn lanes at intersections to meet current standards," said project manager Andy Hingeveld. "The crashes we've seen are people running off the roads, so there's a need for safety improvements."

He distributed a map outlining specific problems, including:

• High-severity crash rates at the intersection with Hwy. 13, and a high crash rate at County Road 91.

• Road surface in poor condition on the highway's eastern end, with crumbling subsurface that needs more than just an overlay.

• Traffic-slowing curves at McMahon Lake and other spots, as well as bridges that need replacement.

But it was sometimes a case of engineer-speak confronting idealistic visions of country life as he and other county officials met up with the fourth annual meeting of the Local Harvest Alliance, a group that stresses farmland protection and a vibrant local food economy.

"We're in transition, and communities are expressing a concern about balance," said moderator Maggie Adamek, a consultant who works on local food issues.

"What the land is used for and who's on the land is changing substantially. You're part of that larger story. If we want to be more self-sufficient with food, if we want small- and medium-sized farms, we need to ask about development and what we need to preserve."

Leander Wagner, who farms near Elko New Market, said he doesn't think there are more than half a dozen dairy farmers left in New Market Township. He said development is already changing the character of farming.

"Ten to 15 years ago you couldn't get any attention for organic food, but now there are shortages of organic milk," he told the group. "You can have cropland in the vicinity of all these houses, but you won't have livestock."

That doesn't mean he opposes roadway improvements, however, he said during a break. In fact, to get to the northern lakes he likes to swing all the way around the inner metro to the west, ending up at Buffalo before he heads north.

That means he does use east-west routes, contrary to those who argue that in Scott the real need is for north-south commuting roads, since that's where the vast majority of people go.

Even so, the recent news that civic leaders are warning of a new growth surge, at least in commercial and industrial building, because of roadway improvements on the county's north end and beyond, is reawakening memories of plans to fill vast stretches of Scott County with subdivisions.

Said Williams: "There was a time when Planning and Zoning was ready to move us all out. Then development slowed down." But in the end, he added, farmers do have options: "If we don't sell to a developer, they can't put houses on the land."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285