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Dunn County declines parallel authority for townships, approves new zoning ordinance

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE — Should townships be able to say “yes” or “no” on special exceptions or variances for land use that come before the county?

On a majority voice vote, the Dunn County Board voted against parallel authority for townships at the October 16 meeting.

 Parallel authority for townships means that when an application comes before the county’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, the town board can deny the special exception.

Parallel authority was part of the discussion on the county’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance.

The Dunn County Board subsequently approved the new zoning ordinance without parallel authority

Parallel authority for townships has been an issue for the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development committee since the committee began working on a revision of the comprehensive zoning ordinance a year ago, said Bob Walter, county board supervisor from Menomonie and chair of the PRD committee.

The PRD committee “grappled with the issue for ten months,” Walter said.

A number of township officials asked that parallel authority be included in the new zoning ordinance.

The Dunn County Board declined parallel authority because state law does not grant townships the authority to make county zoning decisions and because state law does not provide counties with the authority to grant another form of government the ability to rule on county zoning.

Counties only have the powers that are conferred by state statute or are implied by state statute, said Scott Cox, Dunn County corporation counsel.

When county zoning is at issue, state law only allows the county board, the board of adjustment, or other county planning agencies, such as the PRD committee, to make county zoning decisions, Cox explained.

In other words, town boards do not have county zoning authority.

If Dunn County granted parallel authority to the townships, the county could be involved in a lawsuit if the town board denied a permit, Cox said.

If the state legislature had intended for townships to have the authority to make decisions on county zoning, the law “would have said so,” he said.

Township opinions

Walter said he had asked people who have been involved with county government for many years about the county’s position on township opinions regarding zoning issues.

Prior to this, there has been an unwritten agreement that the county will always consider the township’s opinion, he said.

The new zoning ordinance now requires the Board of Adjustment to consider the township’s position, Walter said.

Within 24 hours of receiving a complete application, the county zoning office will e-mail the application to the town clerk and will send out a snail mail copy, he said.

The town board will then have up to 70 days to form an opinion and make recommendations on the application, Walter said.

The wording in the new zoning ordinance is not that the Board of Adjustment “should” consider the town’s opinion and recommendations, but that the board “shall” consider the opinion and recommendations, he noted.

Requiring the BOA to consider the town board’s opinion and recommendation is “not granting what cannot be granted,” Walter said.

Jim Anderson, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he had served on the Board of Adjustment for nine years with Pete Prochnow as chair.

“We always asked about the township,” he said.

“Your committee has done so much research and excellent work. Well done,” Anderson said.


Calvin Christianson, county board supervisor from Menomonie, offered an amendment to the zoning ordinance to grant parallel authority to the town boards.

Waukesha County has had parallel authority since the 1970s, and Racine County has had it for more than 20 years. Columbia and Dane County also have parallel authority, Christianson said.

A number of townships in Dunn County say they will not opt into county zoning if they do not receive parallel authority, he said.

State statute does not specifically prohibit parallel authority, but it also does not specifically grant parallel authority, Cox said.

Cox mentioned a recent Court of Appeals decision concerning zoning in the Town of Eagle in Waukesha County.

The Court of Appeals decision in the Town of Eagle case was issued in September.

A town resident went before the county’s Board of Adjustment for a variance for a fireplace and a pergola and was granted a variance. Believing that he also needed to go before the Town of Eagle for a variance, he applied for a variance from the township, and the variance was denied.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the Town of Eagle does not have concurrent jurisdiction over shoreland zoning with Waukesha County and that Waukesha County’s zoning decision was valid.

A motion to send the zoning ordinance back to the PRD committee to amend the ordinance and grant the townships parallel approval authority failed on a voice vote.

The Dunn County Board subsequently approved the comprehensive zoning ordinance on a voice vote.

Christianson was the lone dissenting vote against the new zoning ordinance.

Dunn County’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance includes the following districts: Residential District (R1); Residential District (R2); Residential District (R3); Intensive Agricultural District (IA); Primary Agricultural District (PA); General Agriculture (GA); Limited Commercial District (LC); General Commercial District (GC); Light Industrial District (LI); Heavy Industrial District (HI); Shoreland and Recreational District (SR); Non-metallic Mining Overlay District (NMM); Conservancy District (CON).