Wisconsin High Court Considers Definition of ‘Rural’ in Address Case

When is an unincorporated town more rural than urban?

In Wisconsin, the answer may depend on whether one lives in Rib Mountain, a suburb of Wausau with a population of just under 7,000 – or Milwaukee, with a metropolitan population of more than 1.5 million.

For the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the definition of “rural” versus “town” constitutes a legal distinction that could determine the outcome of a lawsuit brought against Marathon County, Wisconsin, by the unincorporated town of Rib Mountain. The case involves a dispute over the county’s requirement that all unincorporated areas of the county have uniform addresses to aid emergency responders.

In 2016, Marathon County enacted an ordinance to create a uniform addressing system, giving each location in the unincorporated portions of the county – including unincorporated towns – a unique address primarily to guide fire protection, emergency medical services and law enforcement to homes and businesses.

Rib Mountain’s town board objected to the requirement and sued the county. Marathon County Circuit Court upheld the county ordinance, but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed.

Now the county has asked the state’s Supreme Court to consider whether the unincorporated town fits under the definition of “rural,” which would make it subject to the new addressing requirements.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court justices hearing arguments Thursday struggled for an hour to understand how the county can apply a rural address requirement to a town.

 “Are you saying ‘rural’ means ‘town’ means ‘unincorporated’?” Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet asked Marathon County Corporation attorney Scott Corbett.

 “That is correct . . . in the context of this particular statute,” Corbett responded. “The statute uses ‘rural’ in a couple of different ways.”

But the statute enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature that authorizes counties to require uniform addresses does not define “rural.” When the Wisconsin Court of Appeals considered the case, it used the dictionary definition.

In an effort to explain the county’s intent, Corbett told the justices the “overarching purpose” of the county ordinance is to aid in fire protection, emergency services and civil defense. With the evolution of cellphone communications, he said, emergency dispatchers have less information about locating homes and businesses than they did when landlines were the norm.

“Marathon County is the largest land-mass county in the state of Wisconsin. There were 10 different address grids in 42 towns,” Corbett told the justices Thursday. “Marathon was one of the last counties to adopt uniform addresses, because it was politically unpopular.”

Chief Justice Patience D. Roggensack asked David Dietrich, who represents Rib Mountain, why the town objects to uniform addresses.

“What is the big problem for the town to go along with the ordinance?” she asked. “The county is not being punitive.” 

Dietrich, who practices out of Wausau, said the address requirement was “imposed upon the town.” Rib Mountain “was given the opportunity to cooperate,” he said, “and in the end it chose to keep portions of the town the way they are, and they have the right to do that.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling will provide final guidance on whether the term “rural” should limit the scope of a county’s renaming and renumbering system and on what the definition of “rural” should be in this context.

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