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Town of Rib Mountain v. Marathon County

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District III

June 5, 2018

Town of Rib Mountain, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Marathon County, Town of McMillan, Town of Mosinee, Town of Stettin, Town of Texas, Town of Wausau and Town of Weston, Defendants-Respondents.

          APPEAL from a judgment of the circuit court for Marathon County: No. 2017CV207 GREGORY B. HUBER, Judge. Reversed and cause remanded for further proceedings.

          Before Stark, P.J., Hruz and Seidl, JJ.

          STARK, P.J.

         ¶1 This appeal involves a dispute between the Town of Rib Mountain (Rib Mountain) and Marathon County (the County) regarding the County's plan to implement a uniform addressing system in all unincorporated areas of the County. Rib Mountain argues the County exceeded its statutory authority because Wis . Stat . § 59.54(4) and (4m) (2015-16)[1] permit the County to implement such a system only in unincorporated areas that also qualify as "rural." We agree with Rib Mountain's interpretation of § 59.54(4) and (4m). We therefore reverse the circuit court's judgment denying Rib Mountain's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief and remand for further proceedings on those claims.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 On February 16, 2016, the County enacted Ordinance #O-7-16 (the Ordinance), mandating the creation of a uniform addressing system in the County. According to the Ordinance, the County's intent in implementing this system was "to assign each location a unique address which will aid emergency personal [sic] in providing fire protection, emergency medical services, and law enforcement services; and meet other general locational needs such as delivery services of the public." The Ordinance stated the uniform addressing system would apply "to each road, home, business, farm, structure, or other establishments [sic] in the unincorporated areas of the County."[2] Towns are unincorporated under Wisconsin law, unlike villages and cities. See, e.g., Wis.Stat. § 60.05 (discussing the "organization" of towns in special cases); Wis.Stat. §§ 66.0201-66.0213 (discussing the "incorporation" of villages and cities).

         ¶3 Consistent with the authority granted by the Ordinance, the County published a draft Uniform Addressing Implementation Plan (the Plan) on January 11, 2017. The Plan required all towns in the County to participate in the County's uniform addressing system. It asserted the County had "jurisdiction over addressing in unincorporated areas based on [Wis. Stat. §] 59.54(4) and (4m)." Those subsections provide:

(4) Rural naming or numbering system. The board[3] may establish a rural naming or numbering system in towns for the purpose of aiding in fire protection, emergency services, and civil defense, and appropriate and expend money therefor, under which:
(a) Each rural road, home, business, farm or other establishment, may be assigned a name or number.
(b) The names or numbers may be displayed on uniform signs posted on rural roads and intersections, and at each home, business, farm or other establishment.
(4m) Rural naming or numbering system; town cooperation. The rural naming or numbering system under sub. (4) may be carried out in cooperation with any town or towns in the county.

Sec. 59.54(4) and (4m).

         ¶4 The County subsequently notified Rib Mountain-a town located in the County-that it would be required to rename 61 of its 202 roads. In response, Rib Mountain filed the instant lawsuit against the County, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Rib Mountain argued the County's authority to implement a naming or numbering system under Wis.Stat. § 59.54(4) and (4m) extended only to "rural" areas in towns, rather than to all unincorporated areas of the County. Rib Mountain contended the County had "failed to consider" whether the roads affected by its Plan were in rural areas and therefore fell within the County's "statutory authority to implement a naming and numbering system upon." Rib Mountain further alleged that some of the roads it would be required to rename under the County's Plan had previously been "identified … as roads located in urban areas" by either the Marathon County Metropolitan Planning Commission or the United States Census Bureau.[4] (Emphasis omitted.)

         ¶5 On August 31, 2017, following briefing by Rib Mountain and the County, the circuit court issued a decision denying Rib Mountain's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. The court agreed with the County that the term "rural" in Wis.Stat. § 59.54(4) and (4m) meant "unincorporated" and was not "intended as a way of excluding urban areas." As support for that conclusion, the court cited the plain language and history of § 59.54(4) and (4m), along with this court's decision in Liberty Grove Town Board v. Door County Board of Supervisors, 2005 WI.App. 166, 284 Wis.2d 814, 702 N.W.2d 33. The court therefore declared that the County's Plan and Ordinance "[did] not violate § 59.54(4) by including urbanized parts of Rib Mountain or any other town." Rib Mountain now appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6 This appeal requires us to interpret Wis.Stat. § 59.54(4) and (4m). Statutory interpretation presents a question of law that we review independently. Wisconsin Prof'l Police Ass'n v. WERC, 2013 WI.App. 145, ¶11, 352 Wis.2d 218, 841 N.W.2d 839.

         ¶7 When interpreting a statute, our objective "is to determine what the statute means so that it may be given its full, proper, and intended effect." State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cty., 2004 WI 58, ¶44, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Our analysis begins with the plain language of the statute. Id., ¶45. "Statutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specially-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meaning." Id. In addition, statutory language must be interpreted "in the context in which it is used; not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results." Id., ¶46. Where possible, we must read statutory language so as to "give reasonable effect to every word, in order to avoid surplusage." Id.

         ¶8 We are not at liberty to disregard a statute's plain, clear words. Id. Consequently, if the analytical process described above "yields a plain, clear statutory meaning, then there is no ambiguity, and the statute is applied according to this ascertainment of its meaning." Id. (quoting Bruno v. Milwaukee Cty., 2003 WI 28, ¶20, 260 Wis.2d 633, 660 N.W.2d 656). However, if the statute is ambiguous-that is, reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation-we examine ...


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