Vernon County moves toward countywide zoning, but first they need a comprehensive plan

VIROQUA, Wis. – The Vernon County Infrastructure committee has been discussing the possibility of implementing countywide zoning for most of the year. County Zoning and Sanitation Administrator Matt Albright first brought the issue to the Infrastructure Committee in May. Albright got approval from the Infrastructure Committee in July to put out a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) to hire an outside agency to develop a county wide zoning plan.

Albright reported to the committee in August that he received some rough estimates from some outside firms that could write a zoning plan and was told it would cost roughly $15,000 to write a plan, and about another $15,000 to do the mapping. Albright was asking for permission to request funding for the plan through the county ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) or COVID relief funds. At that time the county still had about $4.5 million left from the original $6 million it had received.

Vernon County is one of only a few counties in the state that does not have countywide zoning. Vernon County does enforce state shore-land and sanitation law but does not have a countywide zoning land use ordinance. Below is a map of how various areas of the state handle zoning and an explanation of the various kinds of zoning.

Some committee members who are also town officials in their home township raised some questions about how the county zoning plan would work. Committee Member and Board Chair Lorn Goede is also on the town board for the town of Harmony, and asked how conditional use permits would work for his township since they already have town zoning. Goede asked if the county would charge a fee for those permits in addition to the town permit under a county plan.

Albright asked Goede “would you (Harmony township) be signing onto the county zoning plan?”

“I don’t know,” said Goede. “I would have to see the plan.”

County Board Chair Lorn Goede

“No,” said Kyle Semke. “Because we (town of Hamburg) would be losing local control.”

“I like the local control aspect of things,” said Goede. “As soon as it leaves the township no one shows up.”

Semke is a committee member. but is also a member of the town of Hamburg town board. Semke and Goede are both from townships that have zoning at the township level. Six of the counties townships Hamburg, Harmony, Coon, Christiana, Viroqua, and Stark currently have zoning at the town level.

Albright said if the county did implement county wide zoning and a township had their own zoning the permits would need town approval as well as town approval. Fees could be shared if that was the ordinance requirement.

County Supervisor Kyle Semke

“I would almost bet that we would be more restrictive than the county would be anyway,” said Semke. “What it (county zoning) will do is allow farmland preservation for those who are in a township that isn’t zoned. It might wake those townships up then and force them to adopt zoning themselves. But we have had it for 20 plus years and we would hate to give that local control up.”

Albright said as the plan gets developed the county would need to appoint a steering committee to hammer out the details of how those relationships will work. The committee would also be required to gather public input on a plan and make recommendations on how a countywide plan would be structured. Albright said the townships could continue to do their own zoning, or they could turn the task over to the county if a countywide plan is approved.

At that August meeting the Infrastructure Committee did approve Albright moving forward with requesting up to $30,000 from ARPA funds to develop zoning a plan.

But wait – first we need a comprehensive plan

As Albright and the committee moved forward they began discussions with the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission (MRRPC) about contracting to do the counties zoning plan. What Albright and the committee later found out though those discussions is that the county needs to have a comprehensive plan on file with the state before it can develop a zoning ordinance. The county does currently have a comprehensive plan on its website but the plan was never approved by the county board when it was drafted back in 2010 and never submitted to the state.

Vernon County Zoning Administrator Matt Albright

To understand why the county does not have a comprehensive plan you have to go back the statewide effort to have every local unit of government in Wisconsin implement what was known as “smart growth” by 2010. That statewide effort actually began with a law that passed in 1999 that required everyone to have their plan in place by 2010. At first their was not funding provided to develop those plans and later the state agreed to provide planning grants. Some units of government banded together to hire an engineer or a planning organization to develop a plan for them. The plans required nine elements be addressed including opportunities element; a housing element; a transportation element; a utilities and community facilities element; an intergovernmental cooperation element; an economic development element; an agricultural, natural and cultural resources element; a land use element; and an implementation element.

The county hired outside help and appointed a commission to develop a 293 page document that was never approved by the county board. The plan still exists and a version of it is still listed on the county website. The issue became contentious mainly over the requirement that the plans be adopted by ordinance, which some felt would make the plan mandatory rather than advisory. This was a concern raised by Gregory Lunde, Vernon County Corporation Counsel at the time.

When the plan finally made it onto a county agenda in November of 2009 it was tabled. A Vernon County Broadcaster article from that meeting highlights some of the concerns about the plan.

Supervisor Geoff Banta, who attended public hearings on the plan both Monday night and Tuesday morning, immediately steered the board toward tabling the measure when it came up on the agenda.

Banta said there were just too many unanswered questions about the legalities involved in comprehensive planning to give the plan a fair shot on the county board floor.

“I think we could go on for three days in a discussion session on this,” Banta said.

Banta said he feared that unanswered questions would immediately lead the board to vote against the plan.

From the Vernon County Broadcaster – Nov. 11, 2009

But Vernon County was not the only unit of government to raise concerns about adopting a plan. Other units of government across the state, and locally, raised concerns and it became a very disruptive issue. Another Broadcaster article from 2009 describes how the residents of the town of Union and the town of Kickapoo revoked “village powers” over the issue. By a vote of 67-52 the residents of the town of Union revoked village powers. The article goes on to say “Town of Union Chairman Elgin Fanta said that the vote means the board will continue to do its work, it just won’t consider any matters regarding land use.” The town of Kickapoo had taken a similar action in 2005.

Union had joined together with the village of La Farge, the town of Forrest, the town of Stark, the town of Webster and the town of Whitestown to get a grant to develop the plan that never was adopted. In the article Fanta said it came down to fears about local control and whether the plan was advisory or mandatory. Fanta is quoted as saying “Some people were saying that if the town board approved the comprehensive plan, ‘You’re going to tell us what to do with our land.’”

The downside of not adopting a plan were that local units of government would ultimately be in less control of local land use and be required to follow state plans, or possibly not be eligible for some state funding or financial help.

So how many units of government have a comprehensive plan in place of of today? According to a state land information office survey:

  • 479 local governments (25%) exercise general zoning and subdivision regulations AND do not have a current comprehensive plan, which may put them at more risk for violation of the Comprehensive Planning Law’s consistency requirement.
  • Over half of Wisconsin’s local government comprehensive plans are out of date.
  • 39% of local governments have no ordinances posted online or are lacking a significant portion of ordinances posted online.

The county Infrastructure Committee did ultimately approve a request for$30,000 pay for the development of comprehensive plan with the help of the MRRPC.

The General Government Committee approved the creation of Comprehensive Planning Committee on December 15. The committee will consist of four county board members and three members from the public with the County Zoning Director, the County Conservationist, and the County Land Information Officer to serve as advisory staff. Each committee member will serve a two year term but the goal is develop a new comprehensive plan over the six months to a year. The committee would then also development a countywide zoning ordinance once the comprehensive plan is completed and passed by the county board. Final approval of that committee will be up to the county board of supervisors, who will vote on the committee at their upcoming meeting on Thursday, December 21.

As required by state law, the development of a plan also requires a public input plan. The general government committee also approved a public input plan that will also be considered by the full county board on Thursday, December 21.

The discussion at the General Government meeting on December 15 also highlighted the potential for the issue to still be contentious. During a discussion of how to structure the planning committee, some who remember the issue from 13 years ago raised the concern.

County Supervisor Alycann Taylor

“We are supposed to have a comprehensive plan on file, but the the county does not as is required by law,” said Committee Chair Alycann Taylor.

“Correct,” said County Administrative Coordinator Cassie Hanan.

“Well that’s correct,” said County Clerk Jerry Pedretti. “But you have to understand it’s not a very popular idea in this County to do that.”

“I understand, but it’s also something that’s required the law,” said Hanan

“Well, I mean, we’ve been here 10 years without it,” said Pedretti.

“Well I don’t really think that’s the way you do it,” said Taylor. “Like, knowingly not adhere to the law.”

“You’re going to find there’s a lot of county residents that are not in favor of you continuing down
this path,” said Pedretti.

“We can’t knowingly be breaking the law,” said Taylor.

“Well you have for 10 years,” said Pedretti.

“Think about what you are saying though,” said Taylor. “Well you’ve gotten away with it for 10 years.”

Pedretti said the threat with comprehensive planning has always been an “or else”.

“Well there is no other ‘or else,'” said Pedretti.

“I think though as Leaders of local government if it’s a law we’re supposed to adhere to we should at least be going down the path to getting in line,” said Taylor. “And if it hasn’t been there for many years, then maybe the appetite for it is different. I don’t know. Or maybe what was presented before wasn’t meeting the needs. I mean, do we just not do it? That doesn’t seem right either.”

Goede later commented on potential reaction to developing a comprehensive plan and eventually a zoning plan.

County Supervisor Ole Yttri

“I don’t think the comprehensive plan is going to be that big of a deal,” said Goede. “But countywide zoning is going to be pulling hens teeth.”

“As a town representative, Ive been on 23 years but you guys been longer but I’m seeing we need some kind of zoning,” said District 14 Supervisor Ole Yttri. “There’s crap going on out there we can’t control.”

Goede cited the example of a township that did not want zoning until an issue came along that made them want it.

“A particular individual bought a tire shop and was going to put in a an adult entertainment center down there, and then they’re like ‘give us zoning give us zoning,'” said Goede. “Well its too late then. No one wants zoning until someone wants to do something right next door.”

County Supervisor Mary Henry

“I understand and I hear the concerns that are going on right now,” said District 12 Supervisor Mary Henry. “But as a board you want a comprehensive plan to guide what you do and why we do what we do. I know it’s not popular and it’s a hard process to go through. Zoning is going to be
contentious. We know that but we’re one of the few left in the state of the counties 72 that does not have a plan. The main reason for a plan is for your urban sprawl. To protect our farmlands but also to protect housing for our workforce. That it isn’t all used up in short-term rentals, neighborhoods and whatever it could be. And we already are in that crunch of housing issues and part of that is short-term rentals. But you don’t want lose all your law your farm acreage either so and I get it I’m on both sides of it. I understand it, and I understand why we need it is a tough process, but I don’t think we should not do it because we get away with it. I feel like we should be. We are the role models, and we don’t avoid something hard because it gets voted down. Then lets talk about what is the compromise?”

The General Government Committee later discussed how to structure the committee, and went back and forth between having more county board members than members of the public and ultimately landed on the 4:3 ratio with four county board members. Those committee members will be appointed by Board Chair Lorn Goede.

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