After a measure that would allow towns to opt out of Dane County’s zoning control was excluded from the state budget, 13 legislative Republicans have revived the effort as a standalone bill.
Set for a hearing Thursday at the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, the bill would provide more autonomy for a handful of towns that have long lamented lack of local control.
But county officials and the leaders from local cities and villages remain vehemently opposed, saying the current process allows for regional considerations and promotes better development through collaborative decision-making.
The new legislation is among a handful of bills that will have hearings beginning at 10 a.m.
Under current Wisconsin law, cities and villages control decisions on rezoning farmland for residential or commercial construction, but most towns share the authority.
Both the town and the county hold veto power over proposals.
The legislation that would allow towns to opt out of that system would apply only to counties with populations over 485,000.
Dane County’s official population in the 2010 Census was 488,075, and the only other county above that threshold, Milwaukee County, does not have any towns.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi on Wednesday blasted Republicans for repeatedly pushing a policy that the majority of the county’s elected officials oppose, and added that the legislation could jeopardize the county’s unique urban-rural mix.
“We are a region. In Dane County, we have over 500,000 people with incredible development pressures,” Parisi said.
“Right now, we have the tools to collaboratively manage the manner in which we grow,” he said. “If we allow a patchwork of towns to opt out — you can’t operate in a vacuum when you’re part of a greater metropolitan area like this.”
Tim Roehl, Dane County Towns Association vice president and a town of Middleton supervisor, has spearheaded past lobbying efforts on the matter. He did not return multiple calls Wednesday.
Lobbyist Bob Welch, who has also advocated for the measure on behalf of the towns association, did not return calls either.
But supporters have contended that turning zoning over to towns would be more fair to land owners and that it would help towns grow tax bases to pay for services.
County officials have questioned towns’ need for zoning autonomy because only 13 of 593 rezoning or conditional-use permits in Dane County were not approved from 2011 through the end of last year, and only seven of those were turned down by the county.
Those figures, however, do not take into account zoning applications that were significantly amended by the county before approval.
For example, Roehl proposed a development in 2010 with 89 residential lots in the former town of Windsor.
After a lengthy review process, the county’s Zoning and Land Regulation Committee approved only 52 residential lots, citing poorly drained soils and a high water table that could cause “water problems” if single-family homes were built in the areas originally proposed.
But Josh Wescott, chief of staff for Parisi, said considerations like that are a reason the county’s zoning staff should be involved in review processes.
Forbes McIntosh, a lobbyist for the Dane County Cities’ and Villages’ Association, said its members also oppose the legislation, largely because they rely on having a regional planning entity to settle disputes.
“When there’s a discrepancy or dispute, we have somebody to go to that will take in both of our concerns and help us get to either a compromise or the right solution,” McIntosh said.
“If towns are allowed to opt out, we have nowhere to go,” he said.
There’s also a fear among cities and villages that the legislation could spur irregular and undesirable development along town borders as towns attempt to shore up against future annexations, McIntosh said.
A similar bill that would have provided towns an opt-out window every few years, but would have applied statewide, failed in committee during the 2013-14 legislative session.
McIntosh said few towns outside of Dane County supported the bill at hearing, which prompted a search for local solutions within Dane County and caused legislators outside of Dane County to shy away from statewide changes to appease their own cities and villages.
Dane County changed the composition of its Zoning and Land Regulation Committee to give the majority of its appointments to supervisors from rural districts.
“We thought we had an agreement, frankly, with the Towns Association at that time that would eliminate the need for state action,” Wescott said.
Earlier this year, the measure returned when several groups attempted to get it written into the state budget.
To the shock of opponents, the provision was neither included by the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, nor was it among dozens of non-fiscal items added by Republicans in a sweeping last-minute motion.