Donna Lenz Wright/The Week
(Published Nov. 1, 2007, 1:38 p.m.)
It’s human nature that people don’t like to be told what they can or cannot do.
Zoning departments are often accused of being too controlling or unyielding in one battle or another.
“Three years ago things were really bad here and people wanted to burn down the zoning department,” said Michael Cotter, Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management director.
The biggest problem was people’s misconceptions of their role, he said. Once the department learns of a zoning code violation, they must assert compliance.
“Once we’re brought into a situation we have to stay involved,” Cotter said. “Even if a large portion of the public wants us to just let something go, we can’t.”
Since that time the whole department, now in the old courthouse in downtown Elkhorn, has made big changes to better educate everyone about their--and our--roles and rules.
“We’ve found that people will play by rules if they know what they are,” he said. “We’ve made a better effort reaching out to frequent users of our department and letting them know of changes that the county board makes.”
They’ve updated their Web site, which now answers dozens of questions and has an interactive map that shows the zone designation of every parcel of land in the county.
“Before that map, a realtor would call at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and say, ‘I have a closing tomorrow at 8 a.m. and I need to know what the parcel is zoned.’
“We couldn’t tell them until we could get up to the map room, pull that map, find the parcel we think it is and call them back,” Cotter recalls.
“It sounds like an easy thing, but the problem is that sometimes mistakes were made and it would take years to figure it out.”
The map alone has saved “tons” of phone calls to the department, he said.
While the changes have helped and they’ve stayed out of the headlines lately, they’re still out there enforcing violations full-time.
“There are still just as many, or more, enforcement actions going on,” he said. “We’re not proud of that, but sometimes it’s just what happens.”
The biggest problems are of the type that have been keeping zoning departments busy since their inceptions--neighbor vs. neighbor disputes.
And that comes back to individuals choosing not to follow the laws.
“Most people just give us a call when they are planning something or have a question,” Cotter begins. “The biggest, most controversial problems happen when people don’t look into (the codes) or they think it’s one way and it’s not.”
Then there’s the, “I’ll do it and beg for forgiveness later, rule,” he says a little slower. “That doesn’t go over well at all. That’s the least fun of all things we do.”
Another past contention came between county townships and the zoning department when several townships felt they wanted to secede from the county’s jurisdiction and form their own.
As a remedy, the county board will incorporate options for them to opt out of countywide zoning and to regulate their own areas as part of the Smart Growth initiative, Cotter said. Cities and villages in Walworth County govern their own zoning jurisdictions, but townships fall under the county jurisdiction.
The Wisconsin Smart Growth initiative was passed in 1999 and requires Smart Growth plans by all municipalities outlining their growth plan regulations through 2035. Walworth County’s plan is 35-40 percent completed, said Cotter.
They have completed chapters one through six; there are 17 total. Their goal is to be done by 2009, one year before the Jan. 1, 2010 deadline.
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