Home > Preemption, Signs and billboards, Wisconsin courts > Wisconsin county allowed to regulate billboards under general zoning authority, even when town specifically regulated billboards

Wisconsin county allowed to regulate billboards under general zoning authority, even when town specifically regulated billboards

March 7th, 2012

by Victoria Heldt

Adams Outdoor Advertising, L.P., and Town of Madison v. County of Dane
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, February 2, 2012)

Adams Outdoor Advertising, L.P. (Adams) wanted to construct a billboard on a highway located in the Town of Madison (Town) and within Dane County (County).  Adams obtained permits to build the billboard from the Town and from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, but not from Dane County.  In order to clarify whether a permit from the County was also necessary, Adams brought a declaratory judgment action in circuit court.  The trial court concluded that the Town’s billboard ordinance preempts the County’s billboard ordinance, so a permit from the County was unnecessary.  The County appealed.

The Court analyzed the various layers of zoning laws governing the area in order to decide whether a billboard in the Town of Madison is subject to both the Town’s zoning ordinance regulating billboards and to Dane County’s similar ordinance.   The County claims it has the authority to regulate billboards pursuant to Wis. Stat. §59.69 (4), which is a broad, general county zoning enabling act.  Wis. Stat. §59.70 (22) is a more specific statute stating that the County has the authority to regulate billboards built next to highways that the County maintains.  Since the highway next to the billboard in question is maintained by the Town, it does not apply to this case.  Wis. Stat. § 60.23 (29) grants authority to the Town to regulate billboards located along highways maintained by the Town or by the County in which the town resides.  The Court identified two issues:  whether the Court has authority to regulate billboards under its general zoning authority (Wis. Stat. §59.69) and, if so, does a Town ordinance preempt any such authority.

Within Wis. Stat. §59.69 the County points to Section 4, which authorizes it to regulate “the location of buildings and structures.”  The Court looked to the Webster’s Dictionary definition of a structure as “something constructed or built…something made up of more or less interdependent elements or parts.”  It also cited the phrase “billboards and other similar structures” which can be found in several zoning statutes as evidence that a billboard is considered as structure.  The court confirmed that a billboard fit the definition of a structure.  Consequently, the County does indeed have the authority to regulate the construction and maintenance of billboards under Wis. Stat. §59.69.

As to the question of preemption, the Court concluded that the Town ordinance does not preempt the County ordinance.  It noted that the Town had indeed approved the County’s ordinance and, therefore, it was in effect within the Town’s boundaries.  Additionally, nothing within the Town’s ordinance explicitly prohibits County regulation of billboards.   Although preemptive languages does exist within the statutory scheme for regulating billboards, it applies only to ordinances pursuant to Wis Stat. §59.70(22).  Dane County draws its billboard regulation power from Wis. Stat. §59.69.  The Court concluded that the Town’s ordinance does not preempt the County’s ordinance and acknowledged that “the County and the Town share regulatory authority over billboards located on property that abuts the subject highway maintained by the Town.”

The Court addressed Adams’ main arguments and rejected them all.  First, Adams claims that the County does not have authority to regulate billboards under Wis. Stat. §59.69 because the statute makes no mention of signs or advertisement of any kind.  The Court referred to its previous discussion of the definition of a structure.  Next, Adams argues that, since Wis. Stat. §59.70 and Wis. Stat. § 60.23 are more specific to billboards, they should prevail over the general zoning enabling statutes.  The Court replied by noting that this rule of statutory construction normally applies when two statutes conflict.  Here, the two statutes do not conflict, but rather allow for shared regulatory authority.  Third, Adams purports that the County manipulated its general zoning ordinance in order to avoid regulating billboards under the more specific Wis Stat. §59.70.  The Court dismissed that claim for lack of evidence.  Lastly, Adams argued that “the County’s interest in promoting aesthetics is not sufficient to warrant its exercise of authority over billboards.”  In response, the Court notes that the statute provides more concerns than simply aesthetic concerns, mainly public health and the safety of structures.  The Court concluded that the County does have authority under Wis. Stat. §59.69 to regulate billboards and that the Town’s billboard regulation ordinance does not preempt that authority.  It reversed the circuit court’s decision and ruled in favor of Dane County.

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