By Shereen Siewert

MADISON, Wis. — The state’s highest court heard arguments Thursday in the ongoing fight over uniform addressing in Marathon County.

The state Supreme Court is considering two issues: whether the term “rural” means “unincorporated,” and whether implementing an ordinance requiring the change exceeds the county’s authority granted by state statute. The court accepted the case Oct. 9.

Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett argued on behalf of the county, while attorney Dean Dietrich presented arguments for Rib Mountain.

An appeals court decision handed down June 5 sided with the town of Rib Mountain when officials challenged Marathon County’s power to make such changes in “non-rural” roads. Marathon County Circuit Judge Greg Huber in August ruled in the county’s favor, but the decision was stayed pending the town’s appeal.

A three-judge panel considered arguments from attorneys representing both sides before ultimately reversing Huber’s decision.

The argument stems from a Feb. 16, 2016 ordinance mandating a uniform addressing system throughout Marathon County. According to the ordinance, the county’s intent was to assign each location a unique address to aid emergency personnel in providing fire protection, emergency medical services and law enforcement services. The plan required all towns in Marathon County to participate, asserting that the county had jurisdiction over addressing in unincorporated areas based on Wisconsin law.

Marathon County then notified Rib Mountain that they would be required to rename 61 of the town’s 202 roads. Rib Mountain responded by filing an instant lawsuit against the county.

Rib Mountain’s argument is that the county’s authority to implement the system extended only to rural areas in towns, and that the county failed to consider whether the roads affected by the plan were truly rural. Rib Mountain also alleged that some of the roads pegged for renaming had previously been identified as roads located in urban areas by either the Marathon County Metropolitan Planning Commission or the U.S. Census Bureau, according to court filings.

In the appeals court decision, judges ruled that the county exceeded its authority by mandating the uniform addressing system without regard to whether those areas qualify as rural. The court did not, however, take a position on whether the county should use the Wausau MPO Planning Boundary map to make that determination, but stated that the county must establish clear, reasonable criteria in identifying rural areas.

In October, Marathon County Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett issued this statement regarding the high court’s decision to hear the case:

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has held that the authorizing statute’s reference to the word “rural” requires that the county develop criteria for determining which areas within Marathon County are subject to mandatory implementation of Uniform Addressing.  On July 5, 2018, Marathon County filed a Petition for Review with the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  On October 9, 2018, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted the Petition for Review.   The Supreme Court will receive written briefs and hear oral arguments of the parties on dates yet to be determined.  Marathon County is confident that the Supreme Court will resolve the underlying question of the meaning of the statute’s reference to the word “rural.”

Marathon is one of three Wisconsin counties that lacks a uniform address system. The village of Weston opted out of the addressing change last year.

It is not clear when the justices will issue a final ruling on the matter. Notice is typically given a day or two before an opinion is released.