The Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Committee last week refused to consider a petition signed by seven town boards and 27 lake associations and committees calling for the return of local control of shoreland zoning and restoration of the county’s lake classification system.

The petition requested that the Vilas County Board “pass a resolution in support of returning local control over shoreland zoning to our counties and towns and restoring our historic lake classification system as it existed before the passage of Act 55 in July of 2015 as the foundation of county shoreland zoning.” 

The committee, chaired by Supervisor Kim Simac, did not consider the petition based on the recommendation of Vilas County Corporation Counsel John Albert.

Albert wrote in a memo to Simac that “the proposed ‘Restoration of Local Control of Shoreland Zoning and the Lake Classification System’ resolution is legally flawed and not a matter that the Vilas County Board could presently consider. 

This resolution seeks to overturn Act 55, which Vilas County just complied with by unanimously passing its revised shoreland zoning ordinance in January. Further, as Vilas County Corporation Counsel, I?may not ethically support a contrary position seeking to overturn the majority position of the county board.”

John Richter of Sayner, president of the Plum Lake Association, said he had hoped the committee would at least discuss the petition. 

“It’s hard to believe that our elected representatives would refuse to even hear a petition from elected town boards and associations representing hundreds of their constituents,” said Richter, who represented petition signers at the meeting. 

Albert said a similar resolution was brought before the Vilas County Planning and Zoning Committee in 2015 when state Act 55 was being debated.

“It is my understanding that due to the pending status of said changes and this resolution’s stated objective to ‘request that the state legislature support the return of local control over shoreland zoning . . . as it existed before the passage of Act 55 . . .,’ this resolution was considered by the county board and failed,” said Albert.

Richter said he wants Vilas County supervisors to support local control of shoreland zoning.

“We’re not used to seeing such high-handed disrespect of citizens and taxpayers in this county. First we got the runaround, then they tried to slam the door,” Richter said. “They may refuse to send our petition to the full board, but we will continue to make our voices heard. We know that many supervisors are on the side of the lakes, and in the end, we hope they will stand up for our lakes and local control.”

Town boards signing the petition include Boulder Junction, Lac Du Flambeau, Manitowish Waters, Plum Lake, St. Germain, Washington and Winchester. Other petitioners include 26 individual lake associations and committees and the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association. 

Richter said waterfront property owners pay 77% of the county tax base. He said healthy lakes and streams are the foundation of the county’s critical tourism industry.

Meanwhile, language inserted into Act 55, the state budget, took control of shoreland zoning from local governments and imposed one-size-fits-all state zoning standards. 

The Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative (WSI) also responded to the committee’s lack of action.

“Contrary to the memo to Committee Chair Kim Simac, requested from Corporation Counsel John Albert, it is fully within the purpose, authority and responsibility of the Land and Water Committee to hold a hearing and make a recommendation to the county board on an issue that impacts one of its primary responsibilities — the need to protect Vilas County’s surface waters, groundwater and wetlands,” read a statement from the WSI.

“It is not unlawful or legally flawed for a county board to pass a resolution stating its position on an issue,” the WSI statement continued. “A resolution containing specific findings of how the county is harmed by Act 55 would help the legislature understand the changes needed to serve Vilas County’s interests, thus providing a service to both Vilas County residents and the legislature.”

In his memo, Albert also indicated the resolution was brought before the wrong Vilas County committee.

Albert wrote: “Finally, as the prevailing subject matter of this proposed resolution is shoreland zoning, its proper committee for any action/inaction remains the Planning and Zoning Committee. While the Land and Water Conservation Committee is a very valuable committee with primary authority/responsibility for maintaining Vilas County’s clean surface waters, ground waters and wetlands, it is not a zoning committee. Therefore, any resolution like the one at issue must be brought before Planning and Zoning, primarily.”