Jefferson County… Not Just Another Pretty Place!

Introduction and Description

Jefferson County is located midway between the Milwaukee and Madison metropolitan areas with excellent access via Interstate I 94 and other regional highways. This southern Wisconsin county consists of 6 cities, 4 villages and 16 towns. The County contains just over 80,000 residents and is averaging an annual growth of about 1 percent each year. Almost two-thirds of the population lives in cities or villages. The largest city is Watertown with a 2007 population of over 23,000. The fastest growing village is Johnson Creek (population 2,055) with a growth rate of 4.4 percent annually. The city with the highest annual growth rate is Lake Mills (population 3,945) at 1.4 percent, and Ixonia (population 3,490) leads the unincorporated town growth at 2.2 percent each year of this decade.

The communities of Jefferson County have been successful in developing sound and diversified economies. However, agriculture is still a vital contributor to the economic, social and cultural fabric of Jefferson County. In spite of growth pressures from the nearby metro areas, the County retains its bucolic rural character and showcases its scenic natural areas. Jefferson County is located in the glaciated portion of Wisconsin, and the topography and drainage patterns of the Rock River basin reflect diverse glacial landforms including drumlins, end moraines, kettle moraines, lakes and eskers.

A land use inventory has identified approximately 68 percent of the total land area in agriculture and woodland use. About 14 percent of the land is designated wetland and almost 8 percent is rural development. Cities and villages consume about 5 percent of the land and less than 5 percent is open water.

Major Land Use Categories

Jefferson County was the first county in Wisconsin to approve an agricultural preservation and land use plan (comprehensive plan) compliant with the Wisconsin Smart Growth Act. The values and vision in the plan have been continually monitored and reaffirmed. Jefferson County and its communities are guiding land use in a way that preserves the rural character, agricultural base and natural resources while assuring a high quality of life and prosperity within the cities and villages. Most new growth is being directed to designated urban service areas (the areas in and around communities with the facilities and infrastructure to effectively accommodate growth). By directing desired growth to these urban service areas, the natural resource areas are better protected and the impacts to agricultural preservation areas are limited. This helps assure profitable and sustainable agricultural production in conventional and new ways.

The land use categories in Jefferson County are generalized into several categories or components. The features of several prominent land use components are summarized below.

Agricultural Preservation Areas: Agricultural preservation is at the heart of the current practices, and efforts are being made to reduce the loss of farmland and minimize the land consumed for new development in the rural portions of the County outside of the urban service areas and rural hamlets. The current policies have reduced the rate of land conversion by about 80 percent compared to rates of the 20 years previous. Jefferson County is recognized throughout Wisconsin for its effective farmland stewardship.

Urban Service Areas: A community-oriented growth policy encourages new growth to occur within “urban service areas” which include areas within incorporated cities, villages and sanitary districts where public utilities are available. These growth areas are designed for both the desired residential areas and also the employment generators. Jefferson County’s largest single source of employment is manufacturing, and it also has a significant retail sector. The County’s percentage of employment, in both manufacturing and retailing, is higher than the average in Wisconsin and the nation.

The land use practices in place are expected to direct 70 percent of future growth to urban service areas, will reduce scattered rural housing by 20 percent and will preserve 95 percent of the existing farmland in Jefferson County.

Rural Hamlet Areas: There are 10 designated “rural hamlets” which are small community clusters not served by public sewers. Many of these are centered on a town hall and typically consist of one or more retail business located at the crossroads of County or State highways. These hamlets allow modest growth in towns without compromising the agricultural base.

Environmental Corridors: These areas are environmentally sensitive areas where additional land protection practices are in place. They include parks and recreation areas, conservancy lands, water bodies, wetlands, 100-year floodplains and contiguous woodlands over 10 acres. Jefferson County’s environmental corridors include the most critical lands to preserve.


Land use remains a complex, multi-faceted and high profile issue in Jefferson County, but leaders and the general citizenry continue efforts to integrate sound principles of placemaking culture development and smart growth to assure a quality land use configuration for the future.