Guide to Community Planning in Wisconsin by Brian W. Ohm

Chapter 11: Agriculture
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1.5.1  Exclusive Agricultural Zoning

Exclusive agricultural zoning is one tool used to implement the objectives of the agricultural preservation plan. Certified exclusive agricultural zoning ordinances are required for participation in the Farmland Preservation Program. Like the agricultural preservation plan, exclusive agricultural zoning ordinances must be submitted to DATCP for certification by the Land and Water Conservation Board. (11)  The Farmland Preservation Act outlines a number of standards which need to be included in exclusive agricultural use ordinances. (12) 

The Farmland Preservation Act mandates consistency between the exclusive agricultural zoning ordinance and the agricultural preservation plan. (13)  This legal requirement for consistency is generally not the case for other types of local plans prepared in Wisconsin. Exclusive agricultural use districts in a local zoning ordinance must be consistent with the agricultural preservation areas set out in the county agricultural preservation plan in order for that ordinance to qualify as an "exclusive agricultural zoning ordinance" for tax credit purposes.

Consistency in this context does not mean that the zoning ordinance map must be identical to the preservation plan map. It is expected that over time inconsistencies will develop as some land within transition areas becomes developed. Most currently certified agricultural preservation plans were adopted long ago and are in need of updating. When new zoning ordinances are submitted to DATCP for certification by the Land and Water Conservation Board, a considerable degree of inconsistency between the two maps often exists.

Once an exclusive agricultural zoning ordinance is certified by the Land and Water Conservation Board, the ordinance can be adopted by the local unit of government. For the most part, the ordinances can be adopted and administered in accordance with the general zoning provisions discussed in Chapter 6. (14)  In urban counties (those with a population density of 100 or more people per square mile), a county ordinance can become effective in all towns six months after adoption by the County Board unless a majority reject the ordinance. If a majority of the towns reject the ordinance within the six months, it will not become effective anywhere in the county. (15) 

In rural counties (those with population densities of less than 100 persons per square mile) the procedures are the same as for general zoning. The county ordinance is effective in a town only when it is approved by the town board.

A county may also amend the text of an existing county ordinance to bring it into compliance with the Farmland Preservation Program. Text amendments may become effective in those towns which do not reject the ordinance, even though a majority of towns do reject it. (16)  In the case of amending the map of an existing county zoning ordinance to bring it into compliance with the Farmland Preservation Program, the procedures would follow those for general zoning.

Once an exclusive agricultural zoning ordinance is in place, rezoning of areas zoned for exclusive agricultural use is to be allowed only after certain findings are made based on the adequacy of public facilities to accommodate development, as well as on environmental considerations. (17)  Land rezoned is subject to a lien for the amount of tax credits paid on the land rezoned. (18)  DATCP must be notified of all rezonings. (19) 

1.5.1.1  Use Consistent with Agricultural Use

One of the main standards for exclusive agricultural use ordinances is that uses permitted or allowed in an exclusive agricultural zoning district must be "consistent with agricultural use." (20)  For the zoning ordinance to be certified, language stating this must be included in the zoning ordinance. The Farmland Preservation Act defines "use consistent with agricultural use" to mean any activity that meets all of the following conditions:

q The activity will not convert land that has been devoted primarily to agricultural use;
q
The activity will not limit the surrounding land’s potential for agricultural use.
q
The activity will not conflict with agricultural operations on the land subject to a farmland preservation agreement;
q
The activity will not conflict with agricultural operations on other properties.

This language can be used as a standard in locating conditional uses in exclusive agricultural zoning districts. For example, a frequent complaint at the town and county level with regard to the 35 acre minimum lot size requirement in an exclusive agricultural zoning district concerns the placement of houses that limit the continued use of that parcel for agriculture. Including language defining "use consistent with agricultural use" in the zoning ordinance allows more effective control of non-farm residence uses in an exclusive agricultural zoning district. Some ordinances place the language in the definition section of the zoning ordinance and use only the phase "use consistent with agricultural use" in the conditional use section of the exclusive agricultural zoning district. Other zoning ordinances have the whole definition in the conditional use section of the exclusive agricultural district.

Using the statutory language as criteria in locating a conditional use should allow placement of that use in an area on the parcel so that it will not convert land to non-agricultural uses or limit the surrounding land or neighboring agricultural operations. A local ordinance can exceed the statutory standards or produce policy guidelines that further elaborate on the statutory language. Applications for conditional use permits that do not achieve the requirements of the ordinance can be denied.

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(11)  Wis. Stat. § 91.78.
(12)  Wis. Stat. § 91.75.
(13)  Wis. Stat. § 91.73(2).
(14)  Wis. Stat. § 91.73(1).
(15)  Wis. Stat. § 91.73(3).
(16)  Wis. Stat. § 91.73(4).
(17)  Wis. Stat. § 91.77(1).
(18)  Wis. Stat. § 91.77(2).
(19)  Wis. Stat. § 91.77(3).
(20)  Wis. Stat. § 91.75.

Wisconsin Statutes