Property owners and lawmakers joined forces last month in an attempt to reverse the erosion of property rights in Wisconsin which resulted from two landmark decisions, one issued by the U.S. Supreme Court and the other issued by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In Murr v. Wisconsin, the highest court in the land sided with local officials in a 5-3 decision holding that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was correct in upholding a requirement that two nonconforming lots be treated as one for zoning purposes (see Jake Steen’s post on Murr v. Wisconsin).

In the second significant decision, a sand mining case known as AllEnergy v. Trempealeau County, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld denial of a conditional use permit to mine sand. In upholding the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court relied on a record of objections raised by residents though the applicant had supplied expert reports and testimony refuting the concerns and addressing the conditions for approval in the zoning ordinance.

At the outset of a day-long symposium on property rights in Madison, lawmakers announced an initiative known as the “Homeowners’ Bill of Rights” designed to roll back government regulations that threaten property rights and home ownership in Wisconsin. Two of the initiatives seek to reverse the impact of the Murr and AllEnergy decisions.

Legislation proposed by Senator Tom Tiffany and Representative Adam Jarchow would grandfather existing lots so property owners would not lose rights to build simply because the rules change over time. Another initiative would propose legislation modeled after Minnesota’s conditional use permit case law which requires that a municipality issue a conditional use permit if the applicant satisfies the conditions and standards in the zoning ordinance.

In recent years, a Republican controlled legislature in Wisconsin has passed laws that give property owners a leg up in negotiations with government zoning officials, particularly where officials seek to downzone property or deny construction along the state’s vast shorelines. Under new laws, the right to build vests when an application is submitted instead of when a building permit is issued. This prevents loss of development rights if an owner takes time to put together building plans or financing – and is particularly important for development phased over time.

Other changes no longer require deference to state agency interpretations of certain land use laws and provide for direct notice to property owners of zoning changes. At least one recent change may be modified in the next legislative session – a change designed to protect reconstruction of boat houses on Wisconsin lakes has resulted in the construction of a few three-story boat houses which the bill’s author said was not the intent.


Bill Griffith was a featured panelist at the University of Wisconsin Law School’s first annual “Property Rights and Land Use in Wisconsin” symposium.