Town and County Ordinances – Conflict or Compliment?

In an interesting conflict of laws decision, Adams Outdoor Advertising v. County of Dane, the appeals court held that a Dane County Zoning Ordinance’s billboard provisions are not preempted by a town billboard ordinance enacted pursuant to Wisconsin Statute § 60.23(29), and both are valid and enforceable.

Adams applied for and received permits to construct a billboard only from the Town and the Department of Transportation. Adams subsequently constructed the billboard. Although it is not clear from the facts given in the court’s opinion, at some point apparently Dane County became aware that Adams had failed to obtain a County billboard permit. Adams sought declaratory relief in circuit court – which was granted. The circuit court held that the Town ordinance preempted the county ordinance. The appeals court reversed, holding that the Town and County ordinances did not conflict but rather complimented each other.

I am often asked whether state law automatically trumps a local ordinance, or whether county ordinances trump town ordinances. There is no one size fits all answer, and the answer is often far from back and white. Preemption of one statute or ordinance by another is a rather complicated process, and there is a great deal of case law on it. Each situation has to be analyzed based on the exact language of the statutes and ordinances in question.