By Tony Ends


MADISON – A proposal that cripples Wisconsin’s most democratically controlled government body is poised for a hearing in the first weeks of 2016.

Assembly Bill 582 has nine elected supporters in the 99-member state house of representatives, three in the 33-member state senate.

It is before the Legislature’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, veiled under “shore land zoning” and “real property rights” designations.

Yet its provisions will effectively tie up abilities of all 1,259 of the state’s town boards to regulate their own land use and zoning.

It will also encumber board voting with unworkable rules, add to small town expenses and bar boards from employing their own comprehensive plans in prohibiting conditional uses.

“We’ve been actively negotiating with this bill’s sponsors,” said Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, in a phone interview last week.

“We anticipate all our concerns will be addressed, but in its present form, Assembly Bill 582 would be very bad for our towns. We’re opposed to the draft as it stands.”

Koles’ association represents all but five of the state’s 1,259 towns. That includes Rock County’s 20 towns and Green County’s 16 towns.

Town board structure is modeled after the nation’s first town boards in New England. It’s thus a cornerstone of American democracy.

Town government gives local citizens – where they live – the greatest means of being heard and of exercising local control of any level of government.

Residents of the state’s townships can meet in their neighborhood town hall and vote on the budget their elected supervisors propose.

They can caucus semi-annually to pick whose names appear on the ballot for supervisor, clerk and treasurer to represent them in conducting the town’s business.

Citizens can do this directly without going through a political party, often insulating decision-making from outside, exploitative influence.

As the nation approaches its 240th birthday, Assembly Bill 582 seems set, however, to eviscerate direct democratic control in Wisconsin’s towns.

It neutralizes and diminishes town powers in five ways that Wisconsin Towns Association staff laid out for their members in email alerts late last year.

For 1.7 million people who make their homes in Wisconsin’s towns (more than 30 percent of the population and 95 percent of the state’s surface area), this bill’s effects will be far-reaching.

Under present law, property owners who sit endlessly, speculatively, without using or developing their land cannot avail themselves of a “vested right” that courts commonly recognize.

The moment property owners seek a building permit, however, and comply with local rules to get that building permit their rights become “vested.”

Local government gives these land owners permissions under existing zoning or land rules that the government cannot take back. It vests their rights by time.

Assembly Bill 582 takes this “vested right” from a building permit and extends it to all permits – permits for: a frack sand mine, a massive livestock facility, a highway road access, high capacity wells, asphalt plants, a housing development, aerial spraying of liquid manure, waste dumps, and on and on.

The proposed law also extends the vested right on one parcel of land in one locality to all the permit applicant’s holdings, anywhere in the state – anywhere that the applicant claims land is part of the original, local project.

“A landowner in a county in southern Wisconsin could obtain a permit to link a driveway to a highway,” Koles said, “and under this law freeze all regulation on his project, including on property in another county at the other end of the state. He could freeze regulation on a project area – self-defined by the permit applicant everywhere he owns land in the state.”

Assembly Bill 582 also holds town boards, which frequently have only 3 elected members, to a ¾ vote when they seek to enhance zoning regulations.

In other words, Koles points out, local town voting will have to be unanimous, even when two of three supervisors on a town board want to decrease allowable development density of land, or reduce permitted uses. There won’t be majority rule; a single vote will be able to block town decisions.

“The bill also provides a developer’s discount, a holding zone for development, unfair taxation, and destroys the farmland preservation component of use value taxation,” Koles stated, in behalf of Wisconsin towns.

“AB 582 also increases the costs of towns in providing notice to property owners if town decisions impact their use, and it prevents town boards from using a comprehensive plan to prohibit conditional uses.”

Representatives Jarchow, Allen, Craig, Czaja, Knodl, Nygren, Petersen and Tauchen first proposed on Dec. 7, 2015 that AB 582 become state law, and Rep. Shrada joined on as a co-sponsor, Dec. 17. State Sen. Lasee, LeMahieu and Nass are listed as co-sponsors in the other side of the legislature.

“It will be a 5- to 6-week sprint to the end of this legislative session,” said Koles, who still hopes state lawmakers can be persuaded of this bill’s negative impact on Wisconsin’s town governments.

“There are four floor sessions scheduled. Of course, it would be helpful to have town citizens voice their concerns to lawmakers or turn out for the bill’s hearing,” he said.

Some Green and Rock town and county supervisors have expressed concerned about this proposed law to the Independent Register.

Wisconsin Farmers Union and the League of Conservation Voters have also tried in recent weeks to rally opposition to bills like AB 582, especially Assembly Bill 600/ Senate Bill 459 (authors Lasee and Jarchow again).

League staffers say AB 600 (under the guise of storm water containment) will allow vast liquid waste structures to be built on lake beds and near waterways, and emptied into waters or wetlands if necessary.

A committee hearing for AB 600 was set yesterday, Tuesday, Jan. 5 in the Capitol. Jennifer Giegrich, is WLCV legislative director, 608 208-1130, Jennifer