Wisconsin town zoning board has no jurisdiction in shoreland zoning area regulated by county

by Kaitlin Heinen

Stephen Hegwood v. Town of Eagle Zoning Board of Appeals
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, September 25, 2013)

Stephen Hegwood owns shoreline property in the town of Eagle upon which he built an outdoor fireplace and pergola…located, respectively, fourteen and eight feet from the lot line.  The property was in an area under the jurisdiction of the Waukesha County shoreland zoning ordinance. Hegwood applied for variances from the county’s twenty-foot setback requirement after these structures were built. Waukesha County conditionally approved both. Then Hegwood applied for variances from the town of Eagle’s twenty-foot setback requirement, but the Town Zoning Board Appeals denied his application. Hegwood filed for certiorari in circuit court. The court reversed the Board’s decision, so the Board appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

The Board argued the circuit court erred when it reviewed Hegwood’s appeal as a certiorari action. However, both Hegwood and the Board agreed that Wis. Stat. § 62.23(7)(e)10 governed an appeal of a board of appeals’ decision, which states that “[a]ny person … aggrieved by any decision of the board of appeals … may … commence an action seeking the remedy available by certiorari.” On certiorari review, the court must presume the correctness of the board of appeals’ decision and review the board’s decision to determine whether it “(1) kept within its jurisdiction; (2) proceeded on a correct theory of law; (3) acted in an arbitrary, oppressive or unreasonable manner that represented its will and not its judgment; and (4) ‘might reasonably make the order or determination in question based on the evidence.’” Hegwood was an “aggrieved person” and was “specifically authorized…to seek relief by means of a certiorari action,” according to Wis. Stat. § 62.23(7)(e)10. The statute also allowed the court to determine whether the Board proceeded under a correct theory of law. Thus Hegwood’s action was appropriately brought as a certiorari action.

In addition, the Board argued the court erred in concluding that the Board proceeded on an incorrect theory of law when it applied the town’s zoning code to the fireplace and pergola. Hegwood argued that “Wis. Stat. § 59.692 vests counties with the exclusive authority to zone shorelands.” However, the Board countered that “there is no specific statutory language prohibiting towns from adopting and enforcing zoning ordinances affecting shorelands and that it is permitted to do so pursuant to its village powers.”

The court has previously held that the “legislature has given shoreland zoning authority to counties.” The court concluded that towns do not have zoning authority over the same shorelands, except for limited circumstances, and proceeded to examine the possibilities for town jurisdiction over shorelands asserted by the town.

Wis. Stat. § 281.31 (the “Navigable waters protection law”) subsection (1) “authorize[s] municipal shoreland zoning regulations.” Subsection 2(c) of that statute defines a “municipality” as “a county, village, or city”—towns are not included. Furthermore, Wis. Stat. § 281.31(2)(e) provides that “‘Regulation’ means ordinances enacted… pursuant to any of the zoning…powers delegated by law to cities, villages and counties.” The court reasoned that “[h]ad the legislature intended to generally permit towns to regulate shorelands, we would expect to see a reference to such authority in § 281.31; but no such reference is made.”

The court also considered Wis. Stat. § 59.692 (“Zoning of shorelands on navigable waters”). Subsection 59.692(1m) states that “each county shall zone by ordinance all shorelands in its unincorporated area.” Subsection (2)(a) states that “ordinances…related to shorelands and enacted under § 59.692 ‘shall not require approval or be subject to disapproval by any town or town board.’” The legislature “specifically prohibited towns from having authority to approve or disapprove of county shoreland ordinances operating within the town.” Additionally, subsection (2)(b) established that town regulations in regards to shorelands would have effect only “if they were in existence before enactment of the county ordinance and were more restrictive than the county provisions affecting the same shorelands.” In this case, the town ordinance was adopted after the county ordinance. Even in regards to the DNR’s shoreland zoning standards (Wis. Stat. § 59.692(4)(a)), “the legislature did not include a reference to towns.”

The Board also claimed that it acted appropriately because the town had concurrent zoning authority with the county over shorelands and that it had the authority to reject Hegwood’s application for a variance, since the town passed the zoning ordinance pursuant to village powers. The statute the Board points to (Wis. Stat. § 60.22(3)), however, clearly indicates that “permitting general town regulation of shorelands under village powers does conflict with the statutory scheme of Wis. Stat. §§ 281.31 and 59.692…[and] deliberately excludes towns from having shoreland zoning authority.” The court concluded that from “[t]he plain language of…Wis. Stat. §§ 281.31 and 59.692, the legislature intended that towns would not have authority to regulate shorelands.” Thus, the Board’s claim of authority failed.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that the Board had no authority to consider Hegwood’s application for variances. “Had the Board proceeded on a correct theory of law, it would have recognized that Hegwood’s property was subject only to the county’s shoreland zoning ordinance and dismissed his application for the variances as unnecessary.”  The circuit court’s reversal of the Board’s decision was affirmed.

One thought on “Wisconsin town zoning board has no jurisdiction in shoreland zoning area regulated by county

  1. This has been a very insightful read, I have what seems to be the very same situation in a Wisconsin Town.
    The Property is Located in Sauk County WI, town of Merrimac WI, the property is Zoned residential and is entirely within the Shoreland Protection area, The Town of Merrimac is one of three in Sauk County that has Town zoning, the first town zoning ordinance was enacted in 1993.
    The issue is the town has refused to approve and issue building permits for a condominium project on the waterfront that has met all County and state requirements, the condominium plat was recorded with Sauk County register of deeds in 2017, each Condominium has been issued a Parcel number.
    The town contends they have zoning authority and can deny the issuance of a building permit.
    Can you provide any insight or resources to aply to the issue.

    Sincerely

    Gene Harbort

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