Some Key Points About Wisconsin's New "Smart Growth" Legislation 

Requires that all local governments must have a comprehensive plan by 
January 1, 2010, if they engage in programs or actions that affect land use. 


Prepared by Brian W. Ohm
Assistant Professor
Department of Urban & Regional Planning
University of Wisconsin-Madison 


I. Where did this Legislation originate from? 

It is the work of a unique coalition of groups including the Wisconsin Realtors Association, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Planning Association, the Wisconsin Council of Regional Planning Organizations, the local government associations and the State. Facilitated by faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the groups developed the definition of the comprehensive plan that Governor Tommy Thompson included in the state budget bill along with money for planning grants. Sen. Brian Burke, D-Milwaukee added local comprehensive planning goals, a "smart growth dividend," and requirements for traditional neighborhood development ordinances. 


II. How does the legislation impact local planning in Wisconsin? 

A. Provides a definition of a "comprehensive plan.

  1. Prior to this legislation, Wisconsin only had the 1920s limited definition of a "master plan" (for cities, villages, and towns with village powers) and a limited definition of a "county development plan" added in 1967. 
  2. This definition applies to all cities, villages, towns, counties and regional planning commissions in Wisconsin. It begins to provide the framework for a unified land use planning and regulation enabling law for Wisconsin. 

B. Requires that all local governments must have a comprehensive plan by January 1, 2010, if they engage in programs or actions that affect land use. 

  1. Changes existing language that counties "shall" prepare a development plan to "may" to clarify that counties are not required to have a comprehensive plan until January 1, 2010, if they engage in programs or actions that impact land use. (Very few counties followed the "shall" language since only a handful of counties have a county development plan.) 

C. Provides state funding to support local planning efforts [see below]. 

D. After January 1, 2010, local programs and actions impacting land use must be consistent with that local government's comprehensive plan. 

E. Requires that the local governing body adopt written procedures designed to foster public participation and other significant new plan adoption requirements. 

F. Requires that a comprehensive plan must be adopted in its entirety. 

  1. Currently master plans and county development plans can be adopted in parts and the plans are often never "complete." 

G. Requires that the governing body adopt the comprehensive plan. 

  1. Current law only requires that the plan commission adopt master plans. 

H. Changes the composition of city, village, and town plan commissions to allow greater local discretion. 

  1. The plan commission shall consist of 7 members, appointed by the mayor. The mayor also appoints the presiding officer. Members may consist of the mayor and other elected or appointed city officials, except the commission must have at least 3 citizen members who are not city officials. 
  2. Eliminates the current statutory language that the plan commission must consist of the mayor, who shall be the presiding officer, the city engineer, the president of the park board and an alderperson. 
  3. For towns with a population of less than 2,500, the plan commission may consist of 5 members appointed by the town chairperson, who selects the presiding officer. Requires at least one citizen member who is not a town official. 

I. Requires that cities and villages, and towns with a population of at least 12,500, adopt traditional neighborhood development and conservation subdivision ordinances that are similar to ordinances developed by the University of Wisconsin Extension. The ordinances are not required to be mapped. 

J. Establishes a "smart growth dividend aid program." Specifics to be developed by the Departments of Administration and Revenue. The first grants are to be distributed in fiscal year 2005-06. 


III. How does a community apply for a grant? 

The legislation provides 2 sources of grants to assist with local planning efforts: 

A. As of July 1, 1999, $1 million is available from the Department of Administration to help finance the costs of planning activities related to the transportation element. An additional $1 million is available on July 1, 2000. 

  1. These are matching grants. Local governments may pay up to 25% of the cost. 
  2. Grants must be approved by the Department of Transportation (the original source of the funds). 

B. As of July 1, 2000, $1.5 million will be available for the fiscal year from the Department of Administration to help finance the cost of local planning activities. 

  1. Grants are only available to finance a comprehensive plan [as defined in the legislation]. 
  2. These are matching grants. The amount of the match will be based on the number of applications and the availability of funding. 
  3. Grants must be approved by the Wisconsin Land Council. The Land Council may promulgate rules specifying methodology to prioritize grants. 
  4. The legislation gives priority to grants for planning efforts that: 
  • address intergovernmental issues; 
  • meet the local 14 local comprehensive planning goals identified in the legislation; 
  • identify smart growth areas; 
  • include development of implementing ordinances; 
  • will be completed within 30 months; and f. provide opportunities for public participation. 


IV. How does the legislation affect state agencies? 

State agencies are encouraged to design their programs, policies, infrastructure and investments to reflect a balance between the mission of the agency and 14 local comprehensive planning goals. 


V. How does the legislation impact existing plans or current planning processes? 

Existing plans and current planning processes are not directly affected. HOWEVER, before January 1, 2010, local governments undertaking programs and actions that impact land use will need to have a comprehensive plan. Planning takes time. The earlier a community begins to prepare a comprehensive plan the better. The grant program and the "smart growth dividend aid program" also provide incentives for early completion of comprehensive plans.