Wisconsin statute regulating parking signs preempts local ordinance limiting “off premises” signs

by Andrea Vaage

City of Eagle River v. Slusarczyk
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, July 7, 2015

Mark Slusarczyk, owner of Traveler’s Inn, posted a sign in his parking lot which forbid customers of the neighboring Synergy Salon and Spa from using the lot. The sign read:

PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING!
TRAVELERS INN GUESTS
PARKING ONLY
DO NOT BLOCK DRIVEWAY ANY TIME
NO! SYNERGY OR THEIR RUDE GUESTS
PROHIBITED THANK YOU

Slusarczyk was cited for violating section §106-683 of the Eagle River Zoning Ordinance, which allows off-premises signs after procuring a conditional use permit. The City contended that Slusarczyk’s sign promoted another business, and therefore was an off-premises sign, defined under the Eagle River Ordinance as “a sign which directs attention to a business, product, service, or entertainment not conducted, sold or offered upon the property where such sign is located.” A trial was held on November 5, 2014 where the trial court determined that the sign directed attention to the Synergy Salon and Spa and therefore constituted and off-premise sign. Slusarczyk appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

The primary question before the Court was whether the City’s ordinance conflicts with a preemptive state statute. Preemption occurs when a local ordinance comes into conflict with a state statute purporting to regulate the same matter. Both the legal interpretation of the town’s ordinance and the state statute were reviewed de novo.

Wisconsin state law provides for traffic regulations, including a section that authorizes signs permitting or prohibiting parking.  Wis. Stat. § 346.55(4) provides that “Owners or lessees of public or private property may permit parking by certain persons and limit, restrict or prohibit parking as to other persons if the owner or lessee posts a sign on the property indicating for whom parking is permitted, limited, restricted or prohibited.”

Slusarczyk contended his sign clearly fell within the scope of the state statute.  The City argued, on the other hand, that “Wis. Stat. § 346.55(4) permits the sort of sign Mark Slusarczyk put up in this matter[, and] City of Eagle River Ordinance § 106-683 also permits the sort of sign Mark Slusarczyk put up in this matter, as long as a conditional use permit is first granted for the sign.”  Citing the 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court case of Town of Rhine v. Bizzell, the Court found, that “[e]ven though conditional uses may be authorized pursuant to the ordinance, that does not render them uses as of right.” Because a preemptive state statute grants Slusarczyk the right to indicate for whom parking is restricted or prohibited on his property, the City of Eagle River cannot restrict that right by requiring Slusarczyk to first obtain a conditional grant. The Court found that the City of Eagle River ordinance conflicted with the state statute allowing for signs which specifically prohibited certain persons and was therefore preempted.  The City cannot restrict this right by requiring a CUP. The judgment of the trial court was reversed.

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