Introduction to Zoning for Towns



The goal of this document is to give the reader a basic understanding of town zoning law in Wisconsin, of the principles and procedures of zoning, and the options available to towns.


With many exceptions and usually subject to county approval, a town may enact its own zoning ordinances or adopt county zoning. A town may also be subject to extra-territorial zoning of adjacent villages and cities.

Zoning ordinances can vary significantly in what they cover and in how they are applied. For example, zoning in a rural county or town away from the pressures of urban sprawl will likely differ from zoning in a county or town that is fast becoming a bedroom community for a larger city, which in turn will be different from zoning in a large city. Nonetheless, zoning has common features across most municipalities, and indeed across much of the United States.

As a general rule, the goal of zoning is to permit compatible uses near each other, and not permit incompatible uses near each other. For example, a residential district will allow residential uses, schools, churches. An agricultural zoning district will allow typical farming and related uses. An industrial district will allow industry. But a major industry would not be allowed in a residential district.


Zoning is the most effective power that a local municipality has to regulate the location of industrial, agricultural and potentially incompatible or detrimental uses. It is the most effective power to regulate hours of operation, noise, dust, lighting, to require financial assurances, to protect property values, and to protect the health, safety and welfare of the town.

Zoning Defined.

Zoning is the regulation of the use of land.

It is generally applied by the local governmental entity, the city, village, town or county. Generally, zoning consists of the division of land into zones, and within these zones, the regulation and control of both the nature of land usage and the physical dimensions of uses and structures.

There will be two major components to a zoning ordinance:

  • A map which defines the boundaries of the zoning districts (for example, these parcels are zoned agricultural, those parcels are zoned commercial, etc.).
  • The written text describing what is permitted within the zoning districts.

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