The New Wisconsin Laws
and “Smart Growth”
A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN under the
new law will have at least NINE
Each element will include background
information, objectives, policies and
Most elements will contain a portrayal
of what those aspects of the com-
munity are planned to look like when
the target year arrives.
The Issues and Opportunities Element
will be prepared early in the plan-
making process, and will likely be
This Element includes:
Background information on
population and economics,
including history and trends;
forecasts of population,
households and employment.
The other elements and the plan itself
revolve around these forecasts.
Forecasts are not required to be tied to
a particular data series, such as state
The Housing Element will identify the
housing supply that will be needed to
meet forecasted future households.
The community selects the forecasts
of households it chooses to plan for,
in various categories, such as income,
age and special needs.
The choice of housing mix is a matter
of local public policy, not a matter of
accommodating any fair share quota; or
meeting any mandate to accommodate
market demand; or
matching housing numbers with
employment numbers; or
matching housing costs with wages.
The Housing Element will describe
policies and programs to produce the
projected housing supply through a
mixture of new development and the
maintenance/rehab of the existing
This Element will describe policies
and show future plans for all types
of transportation in the community.
The Element will compare the local
plan for transportation with the plans
of state and regional transportation
agencies and shall incorporate state,
regional and other applicable plans
within the local plan.
Utilities and Community Facilities
The law has a noninclusive list of
types of facilities that must be
included, if they occur in the
The list includes:
• Sewer, water and storm water
• Solid waste and recycling
• On-site wastewater treatment
• Power lines and power generation
• Schools and libraries
• Police, fire and rescue
• Health care and child care facilities
• Telecommunication facilities
Some of these, such as health care,
child care and telecommunications,
have generally not been dealt with in
The Element will identify specific
needs to expand or rehabilitate
facilities, and to create new utilities
Service areas will be mapped and the
timetables and capacities of the
utilities and facilities will be shown
The Agricultural, Natural and Cultural
Resources Element will describe
goals, policies and programs to con-
serve and manage these resources.
The list of resources to be consider-
ed under this Element, as appropriate
to the community, includes the
following (a noninclusive list):
• productive agricultural areas
(note the phrasing)
• environmentally sensitive areas
• threatened or endangered
• stream corridors
• surface waters
• wildlife habitat
• metallic and nonmetallic
• open spaces
• historical and cultural
• community design
• recreational resources
• other natural resources
The Economic Development Element
directs the community to analyze the
strength of its economic base and
the quality of employment opportuni-
ties (not defined), the community’s
economic strengths and weaknesses
and the programs of county, regional
and state agencies that apply in the
The law directs the community to
identify types of businesses and
industries desired in the community
and designate locations for
businesses that are identified as
The Land Use Element will describe
existing land use and analyze trends
in the supply, demand and price of
land, as well as analyzing land use
conflicts, present and potential.
The Element will contain projections
in increments of five, ten, fifteen and
twenty years for future land use,
expressed in acreage and density.
The plan year is twenty years.
Supporting maps will show physical
and environmental limitations to
development and service limits of
public utilities and community
facilities, with a timetable for the
extension of such services.
The Intergovernmental Element will
discuss how the community relates
to other general governments,
school districts, the region, and the
Intergovernmental agreements will
be incorporated. Existing or
potential conflicts with other
governments will be described.
The Element will identify the policies
of the community regarding joint
planning, decision-making, sharing
of facilities and services with other
governments and describe what
steps could be taken to resolve
The Implementation Element will
describe programs and actions,
and the sequence of actions, to
implement the plan elements.
It will also describe how the com-
munity will measure its progress in
implementing the plan, and how the
plan will be updated at least once
every ten years.
Although perhaps misplaced, in light
of its importance, the Implementation
Element will demonstrate that all the
elements of the plan are integrated so
that the plan is internally consistent
across all its elements.
The new comprehensive plan law has
no provisions on horizontal consis-
tency between plans of adjoining local
governments or vertical consistency
between plans of local units and
How the new comprehensive
plan law relates to existing laws
The new law leaves intact the legal
status of existing plans or plans or
parts of plans prepared under prior
law, even if those plans do not contain
the nine Elements and have not been
adopted through the Comprehensive
Plan adoption process.
Those plans are not Comprehensive
Plans under the new law, but they are
legally legitimate Master Plans (or
Development Plans) or portions of
plans under “old law,” that has
survived the enactment of the new
comprehensive plan law.
Preparing and Adopting a
The new law specifies that the local
governing body must prepare and
adopt a plan for public participation
in the planning process.
This plan will include procedures for
“wide distribution” of drafts and
alternatives at “every stage,” as well
as public meetings with advance
The public participation plan will also
allow members of the public to send
written comments to the governing
body and for the governing body to
Adopting a Comprehensive Plan
Step 1 is the plan commission recom-
mendation by resolution.
Step 2 is the sending of the recom-
mended plan to other governments
with overlapping jurisdiction and
adjacent governments, the library,
the regional planning commission
and the state.
The Floating Step. The local govern-
ment decides at which stage to hold a
public hearing. The hearing can be
held by the plan commission or the
Step 3. The plan commission recom-
mendation goes to the governing body.
Step 4. The plan is enacted by the local
governing body by adopting an
The plan that is adopted must include
all nine required elements.
Step 5. The plan and the adopting
ordinance is filed with the library and
the clerk of each adjacent local
government unit, the regional plan-
ning commission and the state.
These recipients are not mandated
to comment or to take any other
State incentives to encourage local
governments to create and adopt
The strongest immediate incentive
is of $3.5 million in grants available
to local governments for planning.
Two million dollars in transportation
funds are to be used for planning
activities related to the transportation
element of a comprehensive plan.
One and one-half million dollars in
general funds are to be used to finance
preparation of a full, 9-element
In addition, having a comprehensive
plan in place is the first of several steps
that could qualify a city, village, town
or county for Smart Growth Dividend
Aids later in the decade.
And, beginning on January 1,
2010, a local governmental unit
must have a comprehensive plan
in place to begin to satisfy
a mandate that all programs or
actions of the government that
affect land use shall be con-
sistent with the plan of that
CONSISTENCY APPLIES TO:
“Any program or action that affects
“Any ordinance, plan or regulation
that relates to land use”
Consistency through vagueness?
Or through spot amendments?
The “Smart Growth”
Aspects of the New Law
There really are two parts to these
laws. The comprehensive plan part
retains total local choice of what the
plan says about each topic (element).
The Smart Growth part involves state
encouragement of particular policies
The new Wisconsin law identifies the
following as goals for local compre-
1. Promotion of redevelopment and
rehabilitation of existing structures
and lands with infrastructure in
2. Neighborhood designs that support
a range of transportation choices.
Apparently this means, within the
neighborhood. Does it really mean
3. Protection of natural areas and
4. Protection of farmland and forests
"and other economically productive
Each time the terms “farmland” or
“agricultural areas” appear in the
new law they are qualified by the
words “productive” or “economically
5. Encouragement of land uses,
densities and regulations that
promote efficient development
patterns and relatively low
municipal, state governmental
and utility costs.
“Efficient development patterns”
means . . .? Efficient to build?
Efficient to operate?
Can the community satisfy this goal
by making the developers finance the
6. Preservation of cultural, historic
and archeological sites.
7. Encourage intergovernmental
coordination and cooperation.
8. Revitalizing main streets and en-
forcing design standards to build
9. Providing an adequate supply of
affordable housing for individuals
of all income levels throughout
10. Providing adequate infrastructure,
public services and developable
land to meet market demands for
Goals 9 and 10 are powerful. They
mandate all levels of housing through-
out all “smart growth” communities
and accommodation of “market
demands” for all categories of
11. Promoting stabilization or ex-
pansion of the economic base
and a range of employment
opportunities at the state, re-
gional and local levels.
This language implies that a bedroom
community can identify and promote
job creation and retention in other
12. Balance individual property rights
with community interests.
13. Creating and preserving varied and
14. Providing transportation systems
that meet the needs of all citizens
and that are integrated, efficient
Another commitment the state seeks is
for local plans to “address” the
interests of overlapping and
To get a state grant, the new law also
asks local governments to identify
“smart growth areas:”
One type of smart growth area
is an area with existing infra-
structure and services in place,
where development and
redevelopment can be directed.
"Infrastructure" is not defined.
Arguably, a rural community with an
infrastructure of town and county
roads, aquifers supplying private wells
and soils supporting on-site waste
systems, with capacity to handle more
users, is a smart growth area.
A second type of smart growth area
is newly developing land contiguous
to existing development that will be
developed at densities that will have
relatively low public service costs.
The ways in which the state will encour-
age these goals and actions are the
Applications for state grants to pre-
pare full comprehensive plans will
be prioritized. One factor in priori-
tization is whether the application
commits to specific means to
achieve all of the 14 goals and
commits to address the interests of
other governments, and to identify
smart growth areas, and to draft
Eligibility for Smart Growth Dividend
Aids also depends upon whether the
community’s comprehensive plan
includes the Smart Growth features.
State agencies are encouraged to
conduct their programs and design
their rules in ways that balance
these goals with the missions of the
agency under other laws they
operate under. When an agency
administers a law under which local
governments prepare plans,
agencies are to push these goals,
if doing so is practical and con-
sistent with other laws.
The Smart Growth Dividend Aid
This program is to be developed by
state agencies, included in budget
requests for the 2001-2003 biennium,
with funding available no earlier than
July 1, 2005.
Threshold eligibility will require a
Comprehensive Plan that includes
Smart Growth measures, and a
demonstration that the community
has taken steps to implement the plan.
Applications will be taken from cities,
villages, towns and counties that meet
this threshold eligibility.
The dividend aids paid to eligible
applicants will depend upon points
Credits will be awarded for pro-
duction of new affordable housing:
• One credit for each new housing unit that
was sold or rented in the year before the
year of the application on a lot that was
no more than 1/4 acre in area and/or
• One credit for each new housing unit that
was sold at no more than 80 percent of
the median sale price for new homes in
NEW STATE LAWS
By January 1, 2002, each city and
village with 12,500 or greater popula-
tion must put a zoning district into their
code to allow “traditional” neighbor-
hood developments. The ordinance
must be similar to a model ordinance
to be developed. The zoning district
need not be mapped.
City and village plan commissions
will be required to have at least 3
citizen members, unless the com-
munity opts out of the requirement.
Plan commissions of towns under
2,500 population must have at least
one citizen member.