Local Municipalities Retain Sign Control

Municipal Law Alert, September 2008

A recent Court of Appeals decision determined that local municipalities’ right to regulate signs visible from highways is not completely preempted by state law. Donaldson v. Town of Spring Valley, 2008 WI App 61, 750 N.W.2d 506 (petition for review denied). Donaldson desired to place a directional sign advertising an attraction in Iowa County on his agricultural zoned property. The sign was located in Rock County along State Highway 11, a federal-aid highway.

The Town of Spring Valley passed an ordinance that prohibited off-site directional signs except in areas zoned business or industrial. Thus, the ordinance banned Donaldson’s proposed sign on his property zoned agricultural.

Donaldson challenged the ordinance and sought a declaratory judgment. He argued that the state law governing directional signs visible from federal aid highways preempted the Town’s zoning ordinance. Accordingly, he contended he could put up a sign, so long as the sign complied with the state law: Wisconsin Statute § 84.30(3)(a).

The state law was passed in response to a federal law, 23 U.S.C. § 131, which encouraged states to regulate signs viewable from federal-aid highways. Congress secured compliance by cutting federal highway aid to states that failed to comply. Wisconsin’s sign regulations appear in Wis. Stat. § 84.30. The relevant section here, Wis. Stat. § 84.30(3)(a), bans directional signs to attractions except signs that are “required or authorized by law” and comply with rules to be written by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (“DOT”). The DOT rules govern sign lighting, size, number and other requirements, and cannot be “inconsistent with” or “more restrictive than” the federal rules.

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