Ordinance Development

The plan commission plays an important role in the adoption and administration of zoning ordinances, land division ordinances, and other land use related tools. Prior to adoption by the governing body, most land use ordinances and amendments are referred to the plan commission for review and a recommendation. In some cases, the plan commission is involved in drafting ordinance language, reviewing the work of professional consultants or staff, or gathering public input on proposals.

Drafting Ordinance Language

Developing a new ordinance or significant amendment to an ordinance can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there are many model ordinances and examples for Wisconsin communities to reference.

If your community does not have planning or zoning staff or the ability to hire a consultant, the plan commission should try to draft the ordinance language as best as it can, drawing on relevant models and examples. While it can be tempting to take an ordinance from another jurisdiction, make a few minor changes, and forward it for approval, this practice should be avoided. Any language taken from another jurisdiction should be thoroughly reviewed within the context of existing regulations and tailored to fit your community. The following tips are provided for drafting ordinance language:

Use simple language with clear meaning. Avoid legalese and technical jargon. If technical terms are used, make sure they are clearly defined in the definition section of your ordinance. In the absence of such guidance, a reviewing court will look to the plain, dictionary meaning of the word.

Select words and punctuation with care. It’s important to consider and clarify meanings conveyed by words and sentences. The placement of a comma or other punctuation, and the use of terms such as and and or can change the meaning of an ordinance provision. If a word or sentence is confusing, run it by your attorney.

Use a direct, active voice. Avoid ambiguous, passive sentences. For example, replace the following sentence: “A site plan shall be submitted prior to project approval by the board” with “The developer shall submit a site plan for board approval.”1

1Vermont Land Use Planning Implementation Manual. Topic Paper 16, April 2007. Vermont Land Use Education & Training Collaborative. Available: www.vpic.info/pubs/implementation.


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