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County Zoning 101: What is it and why do we want it?

Historical Context


Despite there being general land use zoning in Iowa County since the late 1960s, there still people regularly admitting they had no idea it exists or what it exactly is. I guess this is understandable, given most people don’t directly interact with these regulations until they either buy land in the countryside or plan some sort of development. So, here’s my attempt to shed some light on the topic.


Zoning dates all the way back to 1929 in Wisconsin when the Legislature amended county zoning statutes to permit all counties to zone. At that time, there were only three zoning districts allowed…farming, forestry, and recreation. Today, there isn’t any limit to the number of zoning districts a local jurisdiction may choose to enact and, with some limitations, any land use can be regulated.


Interestingly, what compelled the establishment of zoning authority was the rampant deforestation of the state where thousands upon thousands of acres of forested land was clear-cut with no attempt at sustainability. This provides some context to the 1931 Attorney General opinion on the constitutionality of county zoning…”The county zoning ordinance is undoubtedly in the public welfare. The cut- over areas of northern Wisconsin speak as eloquently against haphazard development as any city condition…I believe the judicial tendency is going to be to recognize more and more the great social evil of uncorrelated and unrestrained individual and selfish enterprise, and hence to broaden its views of the power of government to plan the social and economic conditions of the present and the future.” – Attorney General Fred W. Wylie


By the 1950s and 1960s, the state was looking for economic development opportunities for the northern lake areas, so a variety of recreation and tourism zoning districts were enacted. The 1965 Wisconsin Water Resources Act let to shoreland zoning, followed closely by floodplain zoning, both mandated to be enacted by counties establishing minimum statewide standards. Then, enacted in the 1999-2000 State Budget Bill, land use planning was formally tied to zoning regulations by what was termed the Smart Growth Law.

Smart Growth was a term for comprehensive land use planning, wherein any local political jurisdiction wishing to enact land use zoning regulations must do so based on an adopted comprehensive land use plan. State law defines the minimum standards for a comprehensive plan and requires all subsequent zoning decisions must be consistent with said plan. Iowa County undertook this initial planning effort in collaboration with 13 towns, 11 villages and 2 cities in the early 2000s, resulting in plans being adopted in 2005. The 14th town followed in 2008 by adopting a comprehensive plan, making all local political jurisdictions in compliance with the Smart Grown Law.


County Zoning Today


This brings us to the current status of zoning in Iowa County. While the focus is primarily on county zoning, it is important to understand that cities and villages have their own zoning jurisdiction under statutes. Therefore, county zoning does not have jurisdiction in cities and villages. Towns also have statutory authority for zoning, which can be either regulations enacted and enforced at the town level or the town can agree to adopt county zoning. All but one town adopted the original county zoning regulations in 1969 and, by 1980, all 14 towns had adopted county zoning.


In general, the county zoning regulations establish areas, or zones, where certainly types of development may be permitted. Those uses not included in a particular zone are prohibited. An official zoning map is maintained that shows how specific property is zoned. When a proposal is made for a land use not allowed in a current zoning district, there is a process by which application can be made to change the zoning to a district that would allow the proposed development. This process involves public input and the applicable comprehensive plan is reviewed to assure the decision is consistent with the goals and policies included in the plan.


The purposes of county zoning include minimizing land use conflicts and promoting public health and safety. Another is to encourage development based on the availability of required resources and public infrastructure. In coordination with the comprehensive plan, zoning regulations can provide the tools for the county to work with towns for reasonable, sensible and cost-effective development that helps to preserve property values and maximize continually limited public resources.




Zoning is often perceived as a “takings of rights” without realization of the value it provides. The reality is that the legal enactment of zoning regulations has been and continues to be upheld by Wisconsin courts, as well as all across the country, based on the concept of balancing an individual’s property rights with the rights of the greater public. No legal zoning regulation can completely prohibit all use of any particular property. However, it can prohibit uses that are not consistent with the community values as outlined in a comprehensive plan or that may cause harm to the public…physical or economic.


County zoning is only as effective as it is consistently applied and updated to reflect current trends. This means the regulations must remain “living documents” where revision should not be avoided when warranted by changing community values. Therefore, the better zoning is understood by the general public and the more willing the public is to participate in the process, the better the county zoning regulations will reflect the public will.


If you’ve managed to make it this far, I encourage you to continue exploring this topic. I’m always open to questions and discussion on county zoning, so feel free to contact me. You may want to also consider getting involved by attending your town plan commission and/or county committee meetings and participating in the discussion.


Scott Godfrey, Director

Iowa County Office of Planning & Development 222 N. Iowa St.

Dodgeville, WI 53533