Dane County officials are offering to rewrite the county’s zoning ordinance in an effort to stop the state Legislature from voting on a bill that would allow towns to opt out of shared zoning control.
County Executive Joe Parisi and County Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan made the offer in a letter last week to the bill’s lead sponsors, Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
The letter asks that the Assembly bill and its Senate companion be set aside in exchange for an overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinance.
The rewrite would be led by a special committee that would include members of town governments, builders, real estate agents and farmers, with a goal to enact a new ordinance that addresses towns’ concerns within 18 months. Its adoption would be followed by a yearlong period for town boards to either ratify the new ordinance or opt out of shared zoning authority.
“We will not stand in the way of towns that ultimately wish to opt out,” the letter said.
But the Dane County Towns Association called the proposal a “ploy” and said the county has ignored past requests for comprehensive zoning revisions.
“We are not willing to accept a comprehensive revision. They weren’t willing to do that 5 years ago when we asked. They’re not offering this as a compromise, but rather as a diversion,” said towns association attorney Mark Hazelbaker.
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.
Supporters of an opt-out have said it’s necessary because Dane County government is controlled by residents of urbanized areas who oppose significant development in any rural parts of the county, and that zoning autonomy would help towns grow their tax base to pay for services.
County officials, however, have faulted the bill for carving out rules that would apply only to Dane County.
The proposed legislation would allow towns to opt out of shared zoning authority only in 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.
Corrigan and Parisi’s chief of staff Josh Wescott said they had not heard back from the bill’s sponsors, but both said they hope state lawmakers allow the county a chance to resolve the dispute. Ripp’s office did not return a call Wednesday.
“I’m hoping that this Legislature, which has talked a lot about local control in the past, will see that we’re sincere in wanting to find local solutions,” Corrigan said Wednesday.
The existing zoning code has been amended many times, but the last comprehensive rewrite was approved by the County Board in May 1950, said county zoning administrator Roger Lane.
A County Board resolution that would create an ad-hoc committee to rewrite the ordinance was introduced Friday.
The resolution needs a recommendation from the county’s Zoning and Land Regulation Committee but Corrigan said it should be ready for a vote by the full board at its Feb. 4 meeting.
It’s unclear whether the county’s offer will have any impact on the bill.
But Wescott said a local process would be better than a state-imposed solution even if several towns ultimately decide to opt out.
“The difference is we’d have a locally driven process where we bring in those towns,” Wescott said. “We think we’d be able to demonstrate to them the value that comes with having a centralized zoning and development process that we have now.”
At least eight towns have joined the county and the local cities and villages association in formally opposing the opt-out legislation. Those towns contend that the current system allows for a predictable, cooperative approach to development in rural areas, and that towns lack the staff and financial resources to administer their own zoning code.
With many towns wanting to remain in the shared zoning system, Corrigan said it’s the right time to revise the ordinance regardless of whether legislative Republicans pass the bill.
“We likely would go through with it because there are towns that are interested in changes,” Corrigan said. “I’ve heard from towns that are welcoming this process, but they are wanting to stay with county zoning. It’s expensive to do your own zoning.”