What Is A Town?
Towns are created by the Wisconsin Constitution to provide basic municipal government services, such as elections, property tax administration (towns collect taxes for counties, schools and other governments, as well as for their own budgets), road construction and maintenance, recycling, emergency medical services and fire protection. Some towns also offer law enforcement, solid waste collection, zoning and other services. The town form of government was brought into Wisconsin from New England in territorial days. Thus, Wisconsin towns have deep and uniquely American roots.
Legal Framework of Towns: Towns
are "general purpose" local governments, which means that they
provide basic services used daily by all residents (Wisconsin also has
"special purpose" governments that offer more targeted services, such
as school districts). The major duties and powers of all towns are spelled out
in Article IV, Section 23 of the Wisconsin Constitution, Ch. 60 of the
Wisconsin Statutes (which pertains specifically to town governments) and Ch. 66
of the Wisconsin Statutes (which applies to towns, villages and cities).
Two Tiers: Wisconsin actually has two tiers of general-purpose local governments: 72 counties and 1,550 municipalities. This sometimes causes confusion because residents may not always know which level is responsible for a given service. Further opportunities for confusion are spawned by the fact that Wisconsin has three distinct types of municipalities: towns, villages and cities. Counties cover the entire area of the state and are primarily responsible for providing human services. However, there is also some overlap with municipalities. For example, both counties and municipalities maintain roads.
some respects, towns operate like cities and villages, but in other ways they
are quite different. They are similar in the sense that they provide many of
the same services as cities and villages, but they are organized and governed
in a different manner. The major distinguishing feature of towns is the fact
that they continue to operate as a "direct democracy." State law
requires towns to hold "town meetings" where all qualified electors
who are age 18 or older and have lived in the town for at least ten days can
discuss and vote on town matters, including the town's property tax levy. This
means that the electors of the town have more direct control over their most
local government issues than their cousins living in cities and villages (where
major decisions are made by elected representatives). Towns also tend to
dove-tail their services with counties to a greater extent than cities and
Town Government: The day-to-day administrative issues of each town are handled by an elected town board, consisting of three or five members. Town boards are elected for two-year terms in spring elections of odd-numbered years. Towns are also served by a clerk and treasurer and can have an appointed town administrator.
More About Towns: Wisconsin has 1,266 towns, which govern all parts of the state that are not included within the corporate boundaries of cities and villages. The term’s "town" and "township" are sometimes used interchangeably. But in Wisconsin, the words are not identical. The word "town" denotes a unit of government while "township" is a surveyor's term describing the basic grid framework for legal descriptions of all land in the state (including land in cities and villages). Originally, most towns (and townships) were six mile by six mile squares (36 square miles), but natural and man-made boundaries (rivers and county lines, for example) caused some variation. Annexation of town lands into cities and villages have eroded some towns to a fraction of their original size. The Town of Germantown (Washington County) is the smallest town in the state at 1.7 square miles.[i]
When the Wisconsin Territory began to function on July
3, 1836 there were four counties within the present boundaries of Wisconsin,
i.e., Brown, Crawford, Iowa and Milwaukee. The total white population of the
four Wisconsin counties according to the territorial census of 1836 was 11,683.
Once Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 fifteen additional counties were
created; those in or near the Fox Valley included the counties of Calumet, Manitowoc,
Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Marquette and Portage.
At the 1836 session of the Wisconsin Territorial
Legislature, Act Number 16 provided in Section One that:
Each county within its territory…..is one township, and there shall be elected at the annual town meeting in each county three supervisors who shall perform, in addition to the duties assigned them as a county board, the duties assigned them as a township board.
Three additional counties were “set off” or the boundaries defined by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1840, i.e., St. Croix, Sauk and Winnebago. Three landowners in Winnebago County were appointed commissioners to locate the county seat, i.e., Nathaniel Perry, Robert Grignon and Morgan L. Martin, but it wasn’t until 1842 that the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature provided for the legal organization of the governments of Winnebago County and the Town of Butte des Morts.
The April election of 1842 was held at the home of
Webster Stanley in the Village of Oshkosh as had been done in previous years. A
week before the April election in 1843 the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature
changed the name of the Town of Butte des Morts in Winnebago County to the Town
of Winnebago. In accordance With The Territorial
Legislatures act providing for only one township per county until the
Legislature decided otherwise, the voters assembled at Stanley’s tavern and
elected three men to be at one and the same time the first supervisors of the
Town of Winnebago and of Winnebago County. These first three supervisors were
William C. Isbell, Chester Ford and Louis B. Porlier.
The first meetings of the Winnebago County Board of
Supervisors were held on May 1 and May 6, 1843 at the house of Webster Stanley
in Oshkosh and elected William C. Isbell the first chairman of the Winnebago
County Board and of the Town of Winnebago Board. The board appointed George F.
Wright, the first county clerk, and William W. Wright, the first county
While the first meetings of the board of supervisors
were held in May 1843, the first annual meeting of the board was held September
14, 1843 at which a budget of $125 was adopted. Later the same month, the first
regular election for county officers retained George F. Wright as county clerk,
W.W. Wright as treasurer and elected W.C. Isbell the first register of deeds
and Samuel L. Brooks the first coroner.
A dramatic increase in Winnebago’s population
beginning in the summer of 1846 seems to have persuaded the Territorial
Legislature on February 11, 1847 to divide the Town of Winnebago into five
towns, i.e., Brighton, Butt des Morts, Neenah, Rushford and Winnebago. The
towns of Winneconne (spelled Winneconnah in 1848) and Utica were set off on
March 11, 1848 and ordered organized. Since town chairman in the 1840’s were
automatically county supervisors, the above increase in the number of Winnebago
County’s towns also increased the size of the county board after the election
of 1848 to seven members.
In the month of March, 1849 four different bills
passed the Wisconsin State Legislature and received the governor’s signature,
which changed town boundaries or town names in Winnebago County. Chapter 79
signed into law March 8, 1848 temporarily extended the county boundaries by
adding “Indian Land” acquired from the Menominee Indians on October 18, 1848.
By March 28, 1856 the land involved had either been set off into Outagamie
County or been attached to Shawano and Oconto Counties. These changes again
reduced Winnebago County to its present geographical limits.
The Wisconsin Legislature in 1848 set off and
organized the Town of Vinland, and changed the name of the Town of Butte des
Morts to the Town of Bloomingdale. A third bill approved on March 21, 1849 set
off and organized the Town of Clayton. The last act was Chapter 136 approved March
22, 1849 which changed the boundaries of the towns of Winnebago and Brighton.
Matters of primarily local concern, i.e., the need to
set off, organize and change the name of local towns, had consumed so much of
the Wisconsin Legislature’s time that they delegated this important power to
the county boards in an act approved on August 28, 1848. Thus the Winnebago
County Board of Supervisors received a petition at its annual meeting in
November, 1849 asking for the creation of a Town of Algoma. This petition was
laid over until the next meeting of the board, but at the same meeting the Town
of Nepeuskun was set off from Rushford and the new town ordered organized.[ii]
Since 1847 the Town of Rushford has been serving its
taxpayers. As a proactive unit of government the town has maintained compliance
with legislative mandates throughout its history. On October 27, 1999, the
Governor signed into law Wisconsin’s most sweeping change in decades affecting
local land use and planning decision-making. The program known as “Smart
Growth” did a number of things:
It allocated up to $2.5 million annually to
help local units of government pay for the costs of preparing a comprehensive
It defined nine key elements that must be
contained in all comprehensive plans.
It required that all local government actions
that affect land use policies and development reviews be consistent with the
content of the communities comprehensive plan.
It mandated the adoption of a traditional
neighborhood development and a conservation subdivision ordinance for
communities that are 12,500 in population or greater.
It created new procedures for adopting and
updating comprehensive plans.
It mandated the size and make-up of plan
It created the Smart Growth Dividend Aid
With Wisconsin’s Smart Growth laws, the importance of
having a comprehensive plan is significant. In fact, after 2009 if a local
government wants to have a say in how and where development occurs within its
boundaries, they must have and adopted comprehensive plan that is compliant
with the statutes.
In compliance with Wisconsin’s Smart Growth laws, the
Town of Rushford undertook the creation of this Comprehensive Plan. Further
evidence of its authority to do so concludes this introduction to the Town of
Rushford’s Comprehensive Plan.
The State of Wisconsin Municipal Code (State Statutes)
is the legal document that originally established and identified township
authority along with organizational structure and legal status. Over recent years, the Town of Rushford has
acted to further establish and protect their identity by establishing a Zoning Ordinance, and acquiring the right to exercise Village
On January 31 and February 5, 1980, the Town of
Rushford conducted public hearings for the consideration of adoption of a
zoning ordinance— allowed under Wisconsin
State Statutes Chapter 60.61. Also
at this time, the Town of Rushford formed a Zoning Committee/Plan Commission to
oversee governance of the zoning ordinance.
On April 5, 1980, the Town of Rushford held a public
hearing authorizing by resolution, the right to exercise Village Powers—allowed
under Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter
60.10 (2) (c).
On October 3, 1989, the Rushford Zoning Ordinance went
into effect— allowed under Wisconsin
State Statutes Chapter 61.35.
Building permit approval was included as part of the zoning ordinance.
Aside from the land use related laws above, it will be
important for the Town of Rushford to consider county and state laws. Such laws include but are not limited to,
floodplain zoning, wetland and shoreland zoning, and sanitary regulations.