Population: 5,223,500
Counties: 72
Governor Scott McCallum

Key Laws/Organizations

Click here for the amount of protected land in Wisconsin, and click here to review Wisconsin's federal transportation spending.
Source:  Pew Center on the States & Changing Direction:  Federal Transportation Spending in the 1990s. Surface Transportation Policy Project

Key Laws:
For an overview of Wisconsin planning and zoning statutes, see a summary provided by the American Planning Association.

For a review of historic smart growth legislation passed at the end of 1999, please visit http://www.1000friendsofwisconsin.com/news/index.html

On September 15, 1994, Governor Tommy G. Thompson signed Executive Order No. 236 creating the State Interagency Land Use Council to address and coordinate land use concerns in Wisconsin.1 The Council was designated to: a) develop a renewed vision for land use in Wisconsin, b) recommend consistent land use policy objectives for state agencies, and c) establish a framework for state agency participation in land use decisions currently under discussion by other state-level bodies.2 The Council, in turn, was charged with the creation of the Wisconsin Strategic Growth Task Force.3 The role of the Task Force was to study and recommend processes for coordinating land use activities between state and local public and private interests.4 The Council issued a final report to the Governor on July 1, 1996.5 In essence, the report documents problematic land use patterns in Wisconsin and attempts to answer four questions that seem to embody key elements of a sound land use strategy.6

The Council concluded that primary responsibility for land use decisions should remain at the county and municipal government levels, but that the State should facilitate comprehensive decisions by linking agency activities; coordinating existing resources; and supporting regional, county and municipal planning activities.7 To achieve these goals, the report recommended: 2) creation of a permanent interagency land use council; b) construction of a Wisconsin Land Information System; c) disclosure of land use activities, plans and goals; d) establishment of  a Land Use Information Clearinghouse; e) direct support for regional, county and municipal planning; f) creation of a Wisconsin Land Use Library; g) cross-training of agency staff; h) development of dispute resolution options.8

The report also recommended that Wisconsin create a multi-level land use management framework to produce comprehensive plans and implementation programs in all parts of the state.9 To accomplish this, the Council suggested that the State should: a) make intergovernmental cooperation a statewide priority; b) modify state policies that promote intergovernmental competition; c) rewuire counties to adopt comprehensive plans; d) adopt comprehensive municipal plans; e0 link zoning and other ordinances to land use plans; g) review the role of regional planning commissions.10

The report further recommended that use of the University of Wisconsin system resources, interagency cooperation, and the development of user friendly information and resources for local citizens and officials.11 To achieve this, the State should: a) develop and distribute a planning toolkit; b) transfer critical skills; c) integrate the Wisconsin Land Information System; d) make tools useable; e) require fiscal estimates; f) target fiscal incentives to selected urban areas; g) protect prime farmland, natural areas, and property rights.12

The Council determined one goal should be to improve and simplify access to reliable information about land use laws and regulations.13 Consequently, the State should work to: a) create a Wisconsin Land Use Library; b) improve access to land data; c) use focus groups and other methods to encourage public input; and d) require public hearings.14

The "red book" (a local nickname for the resulting report) was very well received by local officials and others interested in controlled growth in Wisconsin and the process of implementing some of the report's recommendations is underway.15 Merging of land use functions has led to the creation of the Wisconsin Land Council and the Wisconsin Land Information Board.16 Plat review and boundary review have been consolidated in the Department of Administration and the process of laying the platform and infrastructure for the distribution of land use information is underway.17 The toughest sell has been in the suburban ring surrounding the Milwaukee area where local control is of great concern.18 The Legislature has also taken interest in the issues, and in January 1998, the Joint Legislative Council's Special Committee on Land Use Policies issued a report19 detailing feedback received on the Governor's Land Use Council Report. The Legislative Report also identifies issues and recommendations for further legislative consideration, and identifies three issues for further review.20

In 1997, the Wisconsin Realtors Association organized the On Common Ground Foundation to: improve the amount, accuracy, timeliness and relevancy of information affecting land use discussions; provide opportunities for the voice of public opinion to be heard on landaus issues; encourage greater public input and participation in landaus decisions; and promote greater civility in land use discussions.21

Madison is one Wisconsin city very concerned with managing its growth and is in the process of creating a land use plan entitled Vision 2020.22 There was some consensus among Madison residents to protect farmland and to promote balanced communities with varied land use types so people can work in the same communities in which they live. The problem is identifying where growth should occur.23 Vision 2020 attempts to answer this question by tying together transportation and land use to identify where growth should occur and what transportation improvements will be needed to support that growth.24 The goal of the Plan is to promote higher residential densities, balance single and multi-family housing types and to provide outlying communities with a broader range of housing types such as affordable housing.25 Vision 2020 strongly recommends that new housing and new jobs be directed to existing communities that are already served by public sewer and water.26

The above material is excerpted with permission from "Smart Growth at Century's End: The State of the States" by Patricia E. Salkin, published in The Urban  Lawyer, Sumr 1999 v 31 n 3, p. 601.  For a complete copy of the article, please contact The Urban Lawyer

"Motivating developers to maintain countryside:  'Bonus' lots go to those who cluster sites, leave open space," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. March 10, 2001.

"Residents back combined bus, train station plans." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. March 2, 2001.

"Slowing Sprawl:  Mequon Panel Proposes Saving Farms." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. February 17, 2001.

"Clearing the Air:  Suburbs Clamping Down on Unsightly Signs." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. December 27, 2000.

"MMSD Proposes to Check Urban Sprawl." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. September 25, 2000.

1000 Friends of Wisconsin
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University of Wisconsin
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1000 Friends of Wisconsin
16 North Carroll Street, Suite 810
Madison, WI 53703


1 Executive Order No. 236
2 Id.
3 Id.
4 Mark Bugher, Chair of the Council, split the task force into three teams charged with the following tasks: 1) to collect and evaluate information regarding land use planning and programs in other states; 2) to document Wisconsin state and local involvement in land use and strengths and weaknesses in current practices; and 3) to collect public sentiments and expert opinions regarding land use procedures and options in Wisconsin. Land Use Issues Facing Wisconsin: A Report from the Wisconsin Strategic Growth Task Force (Wisconsin Strategic Growth Task Force, WI) Vil. 1. December 1995.
5 Planning Wisconsin: Report of the Interagency, Land Use Council to Governor Tommy G. Thompson (State Interagency Land Use Council, Wisconsin), July 1, 1996.
6 1. What steps can state government take to facilitate land use planning in Wisconsin?
   2. How can county and municipal land use planning be improved?
   3. What new tools can we use to improve land use planning?
   4. How can citizen participation in land use planning be enhanced?
7 Id. at 4-6.
8 Id.
9 Id. at 7-10.
10 Id.
11 The goal should be to equip counties and municipalities with tools that they need to develop their own land use plans Id. at 11-13.
12 Id.
13 Id at 14-15.
14 Id.
15 To date, land use has not been a poltical issue in Wisconsin but rather has evolved as a result of local and media attention. The legislature has thus far been generaly uninterested in the report and its progeny. Telephone Interview with Mark Bugher, Department of Administration in Madison, WI (January 28, 1998).
16 Id.
17 Id.
18 Id.
19 State of Wisconsin Joint Legislative Council, Report of the Special Committee on Land Use Policies, Committee Report No. 12, (Jan. 12, 1998).
20 The 3 issues for further review are: 1) Models for conflict resolution should be developed; 2) the ability of Wisconsin local government to be involved in planning with communities of bordering states should be determined; and 3) there should be a distinction between the land use programs of urban abd rural areas. See Id. at 23.
21 On Common Ground, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 1997).
22 Ruth Eckdish Knack, Go Badgers, Fight Sprawl, Planning, May 1997, at 14.
23 Id.
24 Id.
25 Ten growth scenarios were generated. The scenerios were then fed into a computer to analyze what type of transportation system would be needed for each alternative. Id. at 15.
26 Id.