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Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop Toolkit

Wisconsin Land Use Planning (1-WI-a)

In Wisconsin, a developer should ensure the proposed project complies with adopted land use plans and zoning regulations. Wisconsin delegates land use planning to local governments. 59 Wis. Stat. § 59.69; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 60.80-82; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 61.35, 61.351, 61.354; 62 Wis. Stat. §§ 62.23, 62.231, 62.234. Wisconsin – Comprehensive Planning Law (66 Wis. Stat. §§ 66.1001 et seq.) encourages city, villages, towns and counties (“local governments”) to enact a comprehensive land use plan. If the local government “…enacts or amends a zoning, shoreland/wetland zoning ordinance, the ordinance must be consistent with the local governmental unit’s comprehensive plan.” Wisconsin Department of Administration – 2011 Local Land Use Regulations and Comprehensive Status Report at p. 6.


Land Use Planning Process

1-WI-a.1 – Is there a Comprehensive Land Use Plan in Place?

The developer should check the local government website, or contact the municipal or county clerk, or planning board to determine if there is a comprehensive plan.

The Wisconsin – Comprehensive Planning Law (66 Wis. Stat. §§ 66.1001 et seq.) encourages, but does not require local governments to adopt comprehensive plans. Wisconsin – Comprehensive Planning Law (66 Wis. Stat. §§ 66.1001 et seq.) A comprehensive plan “…is a guide to the physical, social, and economic development of a local governmental unit…” adopted by county, city, village, town or regional planning commissions. 66 §§ 66.1001(1)(a). Comprehensive plans must contain, at minimum, the following:

  • “Background information on the local government, a statement of overall objectives, policies, goals and programs of the local government to guide future development;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs of the local government to provide adequate housing;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs to guide the future development of the various modes of transportation;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs to guide the future development of utilities and community facilities in the local government;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs for the conservation, and promotion of effective management of natural resources;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs to promote the stabilization, retention or expansion, of the economic base and quality of employment opportunities;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs for joint planning and decision making with other jurisdictions;
  • A compilation of objectives, policies, goals, maps, and programs to guide future development and redevelopment of public and private property; and
  • A compilation of programs and specific actions to be completed in a state sequence.”

66 §§ 66.1001(2)(a)-(i).

Local government comprehensive plans will provide a context for determining if the proposed development activity is compatible with the community’s overall plan for development.

If the local government does not have a land use plan, the developer should still review the municipal and county zoning regulations to ensure compliance.

1-WI-a.2 – Review Municipal and County Land Use Plans

If there is a comprehensive plan, the developer should research the plan and any accompanying maps, studies, or other relevant information in order to determine the goals and planning strategies that apply to the proposed project site.


1-WI-a.3 – Review Municipal and County Zoning Regulations

If a local government adopts a comprehensive plan any local zoning ordinance must comply with the comprehensive plan. 66 §§ 66.1001(3)(g)-(q). A developer should review the applicable municipal and county zoning regulations to ensure the proposed project will comply with the zoning regulations.

1-WI-a.4 to 5 – Does the Project Require a Zoning Ordinance Variance?

If a proposed project does not comply with zoning regulations, a developer may submit a variance application to the applicable municipality or county board of appeals/adjustment. Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 93-95. The application for a zoning variance requirements and procedural process varies pending on the jurisdiction. However, to qualify for a variance, an applicant (developer) has the burden of proof to demonstrate that all three criteria outlined below are met:

  • Unnecessary hardship;
  • Unique property limitations; and
  • No harm to public interests.

State v. Kenosha County Bd. of Adjustment, 218 Wis. 2d at 420 (1998); Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 94-95.


The Wisconsin Supreme Court distinguishes between area and use variances when applying the unnecessary hardship test. For a use variance, “…unnecessary hardship exists only if the property owner shows that they would have no reasonable use of the property without a variance.” State v. Kenosha County Bd. of Adjustment, 218 Wis. 2d at 396, 413-414 (1998); Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 94-95. For an area variance, unnecessary hardship exists when compliance would unreasonably prevent the owner from using the property for a permitted purpose (leaving the property owner without any use that is permitted for the property) or would render conformity with such restrictions “unnecessarily burdensome.” Synder v. Waukesha County Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 74 Wis. 2d at 475 (1976); Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 94-95.

Unnecessary hardship must be due to unique physical limitations of the property that prevent compliance with the ordinance. State ex rel. Spinner v. Kenosha County Bd. of Adjustment, 223 Wis. 2d 99, 105-6 (Ct. App. 1998); Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 95-96. In addition, a variance may not be granted which results in harm to public interests. “In applying this test, the zoning board should review the purpose statement of the ordinance and related statutes in order to identify public interests.” State v. Kenosha County Bd. of Adjustment, 218 Wis. 2d at 396,407-8 (1998); Wisconsin Zoning Board Handbook, at 95-96.


1-WI-a.6 to 8 – Does the Project Require a Proposal to Amend or Adopt a Comprehensive Plan?

A developer may propose to amend or adopt a municipal or county comprehensive plan. Adoption and amendments to county and municipal comprehensive plans vary pending on jurisdiction. Wisconsin – Comprehensive Planning Law (66 Wis. Stat. §§ 66.1001 et seq.); 59 Wis. Stat. § 59.69; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 60.80-82; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 61.35, 61.351, 61.354; 62 Wis. Stat. §§ 62.23, 62.231, 62.234.

1-WI-a.9 to 10 – Publish Notice of Public Hearing

The applicable board of appeals or council must hold a hearing regarding the proposed amendment or comprehensive plan (e.g., development plan). At least fifteen (15) days before the hearing, the board or council must publish notice of the hearing pursuant to Wisconsin – 985 Wis. Stat. §§ 985.01 et seq., Publication of Legal Notice. Wisconsin – Comprehensive Planning Law (66 Wis. Stat. §§ 66.1001 et seq.); 59 Wis. Stat. § 59.69; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 60.80-82; 60 Wis. Stat. §§ 61.35, 61.351, 61.354; 62 Wis. Stat. §§ 62.23, 62.231, 62.234.

1-WI-a.11 – Does the Local Government Authority Approve the Proposal?

The local government board or commission may approve or deny a planning amendment or proposal in whole or part. The procedures for an amendment or proposal to a comprehensive land use plan, zoning ordinance, or master plans varies pending on the jurisdiction.

1-WI-a.12 – Appeal Decision (If Applicable)

Any interested party may appeal a zoning variance decision or planning decision to circuit court within thirty (30) days of filing of the decision in the office of the board. 59 Wis. Stat. § 59.694(10); 62 Wis. Stat. § 62.23(7)(e)(10).




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