Guide to Community Planning in Wisconsin by Brian W. Ohm

Chapter 6:  Zoning
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1.1.2   Towns

Land located in towns may be zoned in a variety of different ways. The procedures and requirements for the different ways of zoning town land are often a source of confusion for citizens and local officials.

First, towns may become zoned by acceptance of county general zoning for the town. A county board may pass a general zoning ordinance including a text and map of zoning districts. This ordinance and map may become effective in a particular town if the town board votes to approve the ordinance and map for the town. Through this process, lands in the town come under county zoning. The town board has an opportunity to approve or disapprove all subsequent amendments proposed to a county zoning ordinance or map which affects the town.

Second, town land may be zoned under town general zoning ordinances. Town zoning applies only to unincorporated lands in the civil town and has no extraterritorial effect on lands in cities or villages or in other towns. A town can adopt its own ordinance in two ways:

1.1.2.1. Town Zoning Where There is No County Zoning. (11

In order to adopt a town zoning ordinance under this procedure, the county must not have adopted a general zoning ordinance. A town board wishing to zone can petition the county board to adopt a county ordinance. If, within approximately one year, the county board has not passed such an ordinance, the town board is free to adopt its own ordinance. This procedure is the least used of the various ways that town land can be zoned.

1.1.2.2. Town Zoning Under "Village Powers." (12

A more frequently used procedure for adopting town zoning involves these steps:

First, the town electors pass a resolution at an annual town meeting directing the town board to exercise village powers. Second, the town board considers and passes a town general zoning ordinance under the procedures available to cities and villages.

If the town is located in a county that has general county zoning, two more steps are necessary. First, the electors of the town must approve the decision to have town zoning at a referendum vote at an annual town meeting. (13 The second step is that the county board must approve the town zoning ordinance. (14) 

The county board must also approve all amendments to a town ordinance adopted under the village powers procedure whenever the county has a county zoning ordinance. County shoreland and floodplain zoning ordinances apply in towns with their own general zoning ordinances.

Finally, town powers to enact ordinances protecting approaches to town owned airports parallel county powers. County approval of the airport approach protection ordinance is not required. (15

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(11)  Wis. Stat. 60.61(2) - 60.61(6).
(12)  Wis. Stat. 60.62.
(13)  Where a county has adopted a county-wide zoning ordinance, a town granted village powers may not exercise zoning authority until it has first received approval by referendum of the electors of the town. The ordinance itself is not subject to approval by referendum. Op. Atty. Gen. Nov. 30, 1976.
(14)  A town board exercising zoning under village powers is not required to petition the county board prior to adopting a town zoning ordinance. The town zoning ordinance, however, will not become effective and cannot be enforced until the county approves the town zoning ordinance. Op. Atty. Gen., July 16, 1973. See also Stahl v. Town of Spider Lake, 149 Wis. 2d 230, 441 N.W.2d 250 (Ct. App. 1989).
(15)  Wis. Stat. 114.136.

Wisconsin Statutes