Fitchburg Becomes a City

1st City council LR.jpg

By Rich Eggleston

Fitchburg is the state’s only city created by a 4-3 decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Like many towns (in Wisconsin, they’re towns, not townships), Fitchburg desperately wanted to incorporate, mostly to avoid annexation, which had already chipped away more than 500 acres from the map of what had once been a perfect 36-square-mile rectangle.

Next door to Wisconsin’s second-largest city, the development pressure on Fitchburg was intense in the 1960s and 1970s. Fitchburg property owners who sought to annex their land into Madison maintained they could receive superior services from Madison, a notion that town leaders hotly disputed.

Then, after the Supreme Court had already rejected one attempt at incorporation, a petition was filed with more than 2,000 signatures seeking incorporation. After more legal jousting, in 1981 incorporation was approved by town residents, 1,637 to 304.

The problem Fitchburg faced was that the law they sought to use was passed in 1955 to allow Oak Creek to incorporate next to Milwaukee. It specified that a special procedure was available to towns adjacent to a “city of the first class,” a category that has enabled lawmakers to enact countless statutes that apply only to Milwaukee.

Madison was populous enough, but never went through the formality of becoming a “city of the first class”, likely because it didn’t want to be subject to Milwaukee-specific laws. But thanks to Fitchburg’s skillful lawyers, the Supreme Court ruled on April 26, 1983 that the fact that Madison wasn’t a “city of the first class” didn’t matter. It cited as precedent a 1923 attorney general’s opinion involving a highway bridge in Stevens Point.

That prompted one justice to write that Fitchburg’s petition to incorporate “should have been dismissed out of hand as frivolous”. And the following session, the Legislature said the law meant what it said.

But town officials rushed to Secretary of State Doug La Follette’s office before it closed that day in April, 1983, to file the necessary paperwork, and so the rush was on to establish the infrastructure of a city government for Fitchburg.