Heidi Clausen, regional editor of The Country Today, attended the Northwest Wisconsin Lakes Conference in Minong in June and wrote the following excellent review of the presentation concerning the first challenge to Wisconsin's comprehensive planning law, brought by our grass roots organization, Committee for Responsible Land Use.
Township rezoning brings state’s first challenge to law requiring comprehensive planning consistency
By Heidi Clausen
Published in The Country Today
MINONG — The Bayfield County peninsula is ground zero for the first challenge of a consistency requirement in Wisconsin’s comprehensive planning law.
The Bayfield County Board in March 2010 rezoned 380 acres a few miles south of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from agricultural/forestry to agricultural/residential-recreation/commercial use.
A citizens’ group formed to fight the proposed development, which would allow the construction of a fly-in resort community and private airfield in the town of Russell.
According to a consistency requirement in the state’s comprehensive planning law that took effect last year, the zoning actions of towns and counties must be consistent with locally created comprehensive plans.
The Bayfield County Committee for Responsible Land Use argues that the project fails to meet the letter or spirit of the town’s comprehensive plan, in which future commercial development was specifically mapped for in and adjacent to the village of Red Cliff.
This is the first zoning decision in the state to be challenged because of a perceived inconsistency with a comprehensive plan.
Although a judge has reaffirmed the rezoning and the citizens’ group won’t appeal, “it’s not over yet,” said Shari Eggleson, who represents the group.
Eggleson moved to northern Wisconsin a couple of years ago after retiring as an attorney with the Wisconsin Department of Justice in Madison. She spoke June 24 at the Northwest Wisconsin Lakes Conference.
The project, known as Waypoint, is being planned by CFS LLC, based in Minneapolis. CFS says the project will bring positive economic benefits to the area.
“I happen to believe that those hopes are fairly ill-founded,” Eggleson said, adding that the benefits would be outweighed by the costs for upgrading roads and various services for the expected 100 to 280 residences.
The citizens’ group argues that the project would have a negative effect on local residents, agribusinesses, tourism, the lakeshore and wildlife.
Eggleson said the battle in Bayfield County began when the developer bought acreage “in the middle of the fruit farms” on which to build a luxury resort community and private jet airport featuring a 4,000-foot asphalt runway.
“Locals thought this was a pretty terrible idea, so a citizens’ group formed to fight it,” she said.
CFS first petitioned the county for a rezone of the property along Compton Road in 2008. Rezoning was recommended at the time by the town board.
Eggleson said testimony was “overwhelmingly” opposed to the proposal, but rezoning was approved. CFS began clear-cutting and grading for a runway.
The citizens’ group filed a complaint in circuit court against the county in 2009 to fight the property rezoning. Also that year, the town voted to recommend rescinding the rezone approval.
Although the project was inconsistent with the local comprehensive plan, that plan was only considered “advisory” at the time, she said.
After the state’s consistency requirement kicked in, she said, the citizens’ complaint was amended to say that the rezoning was inconsistent with the local comprehensive plan.
Earlier this year, a judge ruled that he could not say the rezoning was inconsistent with the plan but “by no means handed down a ringing endorsement of the rezone,” Eggleson said.
The citizens’ group decided not to appeal this ruling.
With no precedent in this case, “it’s difficult to reverse the judge’s decision,” she said. “We had an incredibly uphill battle, and we almost did it. The chances of prevailing on appeal are not good.”
However, Eggleson said, the group did appeal to the Board of Adjustment regarding a conditional-use permit granted for the airport and won that case. With no conditional-use permit, construction cannot proceed, she said.
CFS — which faced charges for state Department of Natural Resources violations on work done at the site — began wetland restoration last year and is appealing the board’s denial of a conditional-use permit for the airport.
“Now the developer has the uphill battle,” Eggleson said.
Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said that as part of the state’s consistency requirement, zoning decisions must either further or not contradict the goals and policies of the local comprehensive plan.
Stadelman said Wisconsin law focuses on planning from the bottom up, not the top down. Although some people say it’s been ineffective, he believes it has benefits.
“We believe the model we have in Wisconsin is based upon the principle of local plans basically enforcing local regulations,” he said. “Those local communities should set the vision.”
Stadelman said a lot of local plans have been “cookie-cutter,” and that’s not what the law intended.
“Over the next 10 years, some more communities will get into it, and (plans) will have to be updated,” he said. “Where we do not have a plan that’s consistent with the regulation … I believe a decision can be challenged.”