Thursday, April 24, 2014
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New town for deaf rises up from prairie
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Marvin Miller developer of Laurent, a town for sign language users, dreams of a town where everyone signs. In Laurent homes and businesses will be designed with open spaces that makes it easier for signers to see one another. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
A town may rise up in what's now a South Dakota soybean field. By next spring, developers want to build the beginnings of the town - streets and water lines - in a field along Interstate 90 west of Sioux Falls. This development is so new the county board didn't have any zoning regulations in place to allow such a thing. But now, McCook County commissioners have passed new regulations that allow developers to design the first phase of the town. But there are some in the area that don't want to see it built at all.

McCook County, S.D. — The town will be called Laurent, after the Frenchman who brought sign language to America.

Marvin Miller is deaf and has dreamed of a community where everyone uses sign language. In Laurent, homes and businesses will have large open spaces that makes it easier for signers to see one another. Fire trucks and police cars will have more lights and fewer sirens. Marvin Miller has formed the Laurent Company, a development firm that will design the town. He says if all goes as planned construction on roads and sewer will begin next spring. Miller spoke through an interpreter.

"Everything is lined up and ready to go within a few weeks so we're really excited and I'm ready to move forward," says Miller. "You'll probably see us hiring staff, a team of people to put in place and there's going to be a lot of people moving to the area for our company. So you'll see us working all through the winter on the details."

Miller expects the new employees to live in surrounding communities while working in Laurent. The basics will go in first; sewer, water and roads. Then the team can dream of what else they want in their town. Conceptual drawings include a community center and a fitness center, also restaurants and gas stations and hotels.

Plans call for the world's first integrated American Sign Language public school system serving both hearing and deaf students. High speed internet connections will be key throughout town as the internet and video relay services provide communication. Miller says housing developments will come at the same time but they'll be limited because the water supply can only support so much new growth.

"We can build up to about a hundred units right now with the water that's available on the land right now. But to go past that we're going to have to build a new water pipe, a water main to the small town of Dolton. That's where the water is and that's about ten miles south of where we're going to be," says Miller.

The proposed site for Laurent is about 40 miles west of Sioux Falls. Miller is planning on developing a half-square-mile of land off of Interstate 90 for the town. About 145 families have expressed interest in living in Laurent. Developers chose the area because South Dakota doesn't have a corporate or personal income tax and also because it's in a rural area businesses could qualify for rural development loans up to $25 million.

I don't think that the developers are interested in being a part of McCook County.
- Martha Sherman

But not all of the neighbors welcome the new addition to the county. McCook County has five towns, none larger than 1,500 people.

Martha Sherman, a spokesperson for a group called McCook Citizens United, says the group supports good zoning and growth in the county. But they support the current growth plan that says any expansion comes around existing towns.

"I don't think that the developers are interested in being a part of McCook County as much as their agenda, when you read their concept paper, is one of gaining political control in McCook County," says Sherman. "They see this as a conquest of a place where they can get a foothold and transform the county to fit Marvin Miller's vision."

Sherman says it's likely the zoning plans for Laurent will go to a public vote. She says the new town right off the interstate will eat up farm land and won't help the economy of the existing towns.

Instead, it will do just the opposite, taking away business from gas stations just a few miles up the road since Laurent is visible from the interstate. McDonald's has expressed an interest in building in Laurent too.

Developer Marvin Miller says he'll keep moving ahead in spite of the opposition. Miller says adding more people to a county can only benefit everyone in the county.

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