Northwoods Commerce: Oneida County Planning and Zoning: First stop for business owners
Starting a new business or expanding an existing one can be a daunting task akin to running an obstacle course. One set of hoops to jump through starts at the Oneida County Planning and Zoning office at the courthouse in Rhinelander.
The good news is: you won’t be jumping through those hoops all alone. Oft repeated words from the staff at P&Z are, “Just call us.”
“We like to start out with a face-to-face,” says Zoning Director Karl Jennrich. “That’s really the best way to find out what we’re looking at and how best to guide a business owner through the process.”
It is a complex process, but Karl and his staff know the ins and outs. “The first questions we ask are pretty technical,” he explains. “What type of operation will it be and how big? For instance, for a restaurant, how many tables will there be and how many employees? This will tell us something about parking requirements, signage, lighting, water and sewer, things like that.”
One of the first things to be determined is where the business will be located. That will dictate which zoning ordinances are in play. While zoning maps are readily available, including at the Oneida County website, www.oneida.wi.gov, Karl urges a quick phone call to his office at (715) 369-6130.
“Just looking at our zoning map won’t always tell you what you need to know. In some of the dense areas, the maps aren’t quite accurate. But all we need is a parcel number and we can help.”
Oneida County contains 15 different types of zoning districts, including such categories as forestry, single family residential, multi-family residential, farming, manufacturing and industrial, general use and retail.
Historically, this area was among the first to implement zoning regulations. “Oneida County is somewhat unique with its long history,” says Karl. “In 1933, a rural zoning ordinance prevented people settling in the hinterlands. At that time, providing roads, school transport and fire protection would have been too difficult and expensive.”
Some areas of the county still restrict year-round residency. But four of the county’s 20 townships have no zoning regulations at all, according to Karl. “Enterprise, Schoepke, Monico and Sugar Camp have nothing on the books except rules pertaining to waterfront property. Most of the shoreland regulations disallow anything but small home-based businesses.”
Once the pertinent facts are known, the paperwork begins. “Typically, we look at what a business owner wants to do,” Karl explains. “We look at the proposal to see if the zoning district allows such an operation. After a review by our staff, we next submit the plan for approval by the town board.
“The towns like to have input on new businesses. They need to determine how the operation may affect road maintenance and plowing and if it will have any impact on neighboring properties.
“Scheduling proposals at town meetings can take time,” he continues. “They often don’t meet more than once or twice a month. We usually suggest a business owner talk with the town chairman, and we can also offer advice on what townships are likely to be concerned with.”
The next step for some applicants is review and approval of the Oneida County Planning and Zoning Committee. Karl works closely with this group, which also considers possible impacts on existing residents and businesses, roadways and other infrastructure.
“Depending on the scope of the project, this can be something of a trial by fire if nearby property owners feel strongly about the proposal,” warns Karl. “It can be a painful process, but I can usually tell if an applicant is in for a rough ride.
“The committee works hard, and they are very knowledgeable,” he says. “For large operations that may have a big impact, they need to take a lot of things into consideration. They have a large jurisdiction.”
The last requirement for larger business operations is a Class Two public hearing notice, which is also handled by Karl and his staff. “All in all, this whole process can take several weeks to complete, which can be frustrating for some applicants. We try to move it along as quickly as we can.”
All businesses of any size start out with the same P&Z application requirements, according to Karl. But county-wide, small businesses that are operated out of the owner’s home face a fairly easy process.
“Cottage industries such as professional offices, artists, gunsmiths and daycare providers are pretty easy,” Karl says. “They need to be intimately associated with the residence-in other words, included in the same building-and there are some restrictions on signage and hours of operation.”
Basically, small home-based operations have to be considerate of their neighbors when it comes to things like traffic, parking and deliveries. “I don’t really want to regulate these businesses if I don’t need to,” Karl explains. “But it’s always best for them to contact our office.”
In fact, according to Karl, existing businesses that have not filed paperwork with his office shouldn’t hesitate to call him. “We can authorize operations after-the-fact. We understand that most of the time, people have just been unaware of the regulations and we will do all we can to get them into compliance.
“We try to be helpful,” he says. “We understand that business owners just want to get their operations off the ground. Most don’t mind this process and realize it’s just another hoop to go through. I do what I can for them, while trying to keep peace in the neighborhood.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.