Eminent domain ruling fuels imminent concern: Milwaukee (WI) Journal Sentinel, 7/15/05

Falls redevelopment brings worries to Main St

By Reid J Epstein

The letter that scared Don Umhoefer arrived via certified mail earlier this month. On village stationery, it described a proposed Main Street area redevelopment plan in the works that encompasses his block of Fond du Lac Ave.

"Implementing the proposed Redevelopment Plan may involve the condemnation of private property within the Redevelopment Area for urban renewal purposes," the letter states. "Accordingly, you are hereby notified that your property might be taken for urban renewal."

Condemning private property for economic redevelopment, always touchy ground for local governments to tread, theoretically became easier last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments may buy property, blighted or not, as long as the owner is fairly compensated.

Menomonee Falls officials say they hope to not have to take property for the Main Street project, but they won't rule out the option.

"There aren't any particular parcels targeted and there aren't any parcels that are excluded," said John Fellows, the village planner. "It's left open. A parcel could be acquired or nothing might be acquired."

The Falls' Main Street, a depressed corridor dotted with vacant lots and empty storefronts, has long been the subject of redevelopment talks. Village officials contracted with urban planners RTKL Associates Inc. to develop a design for the neighborhood. Trustees hope to have a plan finalized soon and financing formalized by fall.

Last month's Supreme Court decision expanded the local governments' power to declare eminent domain.

In New London, Conn., residents whose homes are targeted for destruction to make room for an office complex challenged the city's condemnation. They claimed the city could not seize their land to turn it over to private developer, but the court ruled otherwise.

Car dealer owns parcels
Of the 80 parcels in the Menomonee Falls redevelopment proposal, car dealer Ernie von Schledorn owns 14, including six that are listed as vacant lots. Trustee Michael McDonald, who said he hopes the village does not have to purchase land in its redevelopment effort, acknowledged that the village could use eminent domain powers to turn von Schledorn's property over to developers.

"Hopefully, it won't be necessary," McDonald said. "Hopefully, Ernie von Schledorn and the other property owners will embrace the concept so we won't have to resort to that sort of thing."

Reached Friday at his dealership in Mayville, von Schledorn said he purchased the Main Street properties with the idea of expanding his flagship car dealership, which sits on Main Street east of Highway 41/45, adjacent to the proposed redevelopment zone.

Von Schledorn termed the redevelopment plan "all very promising."

"They will have my total cooperation," he said.

Next up is a July 26 public hearing, at which property owners within the proposed redevelopment zone can lobby to be removed from it.

Condemning private property to spur economic development is not a new function for local governments. Milwaukee purchased an old rail yard in the Menomonee Valley to develop it as a business park and Glendale's Bayshore Mall is being expanded into a mix of stores, restaurants, offices and condominiums.

Taxpayer rights advocated
State Sen. David Zien (R-Eau Claire), who announced last month that he would introduce legislation seeking to restrict local government's ability to seize private property for economic development, said Menomonee Falls should not turn property over from one owner to another.

"The rights of the taxpayers, the rights of the property owners, are paramount," Zien said. "Where is that fine line of demarcation where it is not public use, but public greed?"

Umhoefer said he is worried he will be forced to leave his home, which is assessed for tax purposes at $102,900.

"The guys with the money are going to win," he said. "If somebody came in there with a lot of money and said, 'I'm going to put up the next Wisconsin Dells,' they have the power to take anything within those boundaries and condemn it."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: www.journalsentinel.com

The following is a "Letter to the Editor" of the Menomonee Falls Express News by Don Umhoefer, one of the parties affected by the proposed 'taking' described in the above report.

I applaud the Village Board’s decision to intervene in the declining Main Street area. After an objective and thorough review of the entire northeast corner of the Village, the consultant’s recommendations have been presented and have now been called “The Dream” for Main Street. Job well done!

It’s great to have a dream… The business and home owners in the Main Street neighborhood also have dreams. No matter how much we try to buy into this plan, it is hard for the business and homeowners to not feel that their dreams are being threatened.

In order to create the redevelopment district proposed, an inventory of all the homes and businesses within its boundaries has been completed. (This also includes parts of Fond du Lac, Jefferson and Cleveland Avenues) Each and every property has been determined to be “blighted”. Vibrant, functioning businesses such as Auto Zone, Murf’s, Schlotzky’s, Pool Park, Emery’s Bicycles, and the Wauwatosa Credit Union, as well as many homes “Impair the sound growth of the community” simply because they do not fit into the proposed plan.

Instead of looking for one new business to provide the catalyst for change, why not acknowledge these current business owners as the cornerstones of Main Street and stimulate the revitalization with a controlled, planned infill of complementary residential and retail development?

Will the Village of Menomonee Falls use eminent domain to take private property from the existing home and business owners to benefit private developers?

Once this entire area is labeled “blighted”, the Village has the power to acquire properties through the use of eminent domain. Most people are aware that government has the power to take private property for “the good of the general public”. Primarily, this power has been used for roads, public buildings, and power transmission lines.

The recent Supreme Court split decision on Kelo-vs-City of New London has opened the door for government to liberally stretch this power to also take private property from one owner to give it to another private owner, usually a developer. In the words of dissenting Justice O Connor stated; “the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.” In other words, the little guy loses again!

Property owners in the proposed Main Street Redevelopment Area recently received a notification of a Public Hearing in the form of a Certified Letter which includes the statement; “Implementing the proposed Redevelopment Plan may involve the condemnation of private property within the Redevelopment Area for urban renewal purposes. Accordingly, you are hereby notified that your property might be taken for urban renewal.”

Will the Village of Menomonee Falls choose to abuse their power of eminent domain?

How are our taxes going to be used to pay for these “improvements” and the increased burden they place on the Village’s infrastructure?

Please attend the Public Hearing on July 26, 2005 to learn more and to voice your opinion.

Donald J. Umhoefer, Menomonee Falls WI 53051: oompa@worldshare.net