Dane County rural zoning

Dane County has filed a lawsuit against the local towns association seeking to protect its tax levy in the wake of a new state law that allows towns to opt out of shared zoning authority specifically with Dane County.The lawsuit filed last Tuesday alleges that the Dane County Towns Association has incorrectly communicated to its members that a portion of the county's tax levy used for zoning can be shifted to towns.

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Dane County has sued the local towns association, seeking to protect its tax levy in the wake of a new state law that allows towns to opt out of the county’s shared zoning authority.

The lawsuit filed last Tuesday alleges that the Dane County Towns Association has incorrectly communicated to its members that a portion of the county’s tax levy used for zoning can be shifted to towns.

It notes the law that created the state-imposed levy limit allows for levy transfers when one unit of government shifts responsibility for a service to another unit, however, the lawsuit argues that the provision does not apply in the case of an opt-out because the action is voluntary.

“The fact of the matter is we will still be providing the service countywide and will be required (by state law) to provide zoning services countywide,” County Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan said. “If towns choose not use those services, that is different than what the law provides, and we think it’s very important to have the courts weigh in on this.

“We don’t believe they have the right to the levy because we will be still be required to provide those services.”

Towns Association attorney Mark Hazelbaker said the county’s lawsuit has no basis because the opt-out window does not open until January, so no town has opted out and no town has asked the state Department of Revenue to determine the value of zoning services for a levy transfer.

“This lawsuit is, to put it mildly, ill-considered and poorly conceived,” Hazelbaker said. “They sued the Dane County Towns Association alleging that something we are saying in memoranda — political communication to our members — is wrong. They are asking the courts to declare that speech uttered by a voluntary association is wrong.”

Dane County’s Planning and Development Department budget for 2016 includes $3.4 million in expenses, paid for with about $2.5 million from taxes and $857,145 in program-specific revenues such as permit fees. The towns association has placed the department’s annual zoning expenses around $900,000, but Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi, said the figure is closer to $1.2 million because of the interconnected work in zoning and planning.

The county would lose the fee revenue from towns that opt out regardless of a judge’s decision. County zoning administrator Roger Lane said a loss of fee revenue wouldn’t hurt the department’s functions because the department wouldn’t have to do work related to those permits.

But the potential impact of dollars lost from the levy is less certain, hinging on the number of towns that decide to opt out and the amount of money distributed to those towns.

The levy dispute is the latest in a series of quarrels between the two groups over the controversial new law, which allows towns to opt out of shared zoning authority with counties only in those with populations exceeding 485,000. Milwaukee County, the only county besides Dane above that threshold, does not have any towns.

Claiming its members needed more autonomy over rural development to increase tax bases, the towns association successfully lobbied Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in February. Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law Feb. 29.

Critics — including officials from Dane County, its cities and villages and some of its towns — have questioned the ability of towns to finance administration of their own zoning codes and have contended that a patchwork of zoning regulations could undermine regional planning efforts.

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