Limit on property seizure proposed: Milwaukee (WI) Journal Sentinel, 7/27/05

Brookfield alderman notes concern about use of eminent domain near 124th, Capitol

By Lisa Sink

An alderman [in Brookfield WI] wants to strip the city of its power to seize property for economic development, citing concern about that tool being used near Capitol Drive and 124th St.

Although Brookfield generally has used eminent domain to acquire land for only roads and utilities - not for commercial development - some city officials have raised the possibility of forcibly buying properties to facilitate redevelopment of an area a former mayor once dubbed "Schmuckville."

Ald. Cindy Kilkenny said Tuesday that she was strongly opposed to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that broadened governments' ability to seize private property to make way for new development.

"Property rights are just a very basic part of being an American, and I just very much disagreed with the ruling," Kilkenny said.

She said she wanted to change city rules on eminent domain "so that it will never be used for gathering property to be resold to a developer."

Mayor Jeff Speaker said Tuesday that he wanted to hear the specifics of her proposal before taking a position. But he said he had concerns about giving up the economic development tool.

"I prefer the private sector" to finance and assemble redevelopment, Speaker said. "But I'm not going to rule out any option."

"Using eminent domain would absolutely have to be a last-ditch effort, a last resort to use," he said.

Speaker said that he may support using eminent domain if, for example, a developer was able to assemble 30 of the 35 properties in the Capitol Drive-124th corridor for a "fantastic development that would knock our socks off" and needed city help in acquiring the remaining parcels.

Individual property rights would have to be weighed against the public good to the city as whole, Speaker said.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that governments may buy property, even when it isn't blighted, as long as the owner is fairly compensated.

That power, known as eminent domain, has existed since the United States was founded, and governments have used it to obtain land for public highways and schools. Also called condemnation, the tool allows local governments to take the land even if the owner isn't willing to sell, as long as the property owner is fairly compensated.

The power has been expanded to include projects for which governments would buy blighted buildings and sell them to owners who develop the parcels privately, which would create jobs and property tax revenue.

Brookfield city officials have been preparing a mini-master plan for the area along Capitol Drive at the Brookfield-Wauwatosa border. They are interested in seeing property owners redevelop the area into a regional home design center with a gallery of home improvement and decorating stores.

If the longtime businesses there don't buy into the concept, the city's second choice is to encourage development at the site of "medium-box" retailers, defined as smaller than 100,000 square feet, like the size of Circuit City.

City plan commissioners have stressed that the master plan is merely a guide for development and not a precursor to push out existing businesses.

The mayor said at a Community Development Authority meeting Tuesday that most businesses are not interested in relocating or selling.

"I think my nose has kind of healed (from) the slamming of the door," he said.

"What we have to understand is these properties up there are making money. They're very profitable," he said.

Dan Ertl, the city's Community Development director, said that retail brokers are interested in the city's ideas. But they want the city to assemble the myriad properties for resale to developers because of the complexity and cost of buying and relocating existing businesses.

The Community Development Authority directed Ertl to prepare a request for proposals for redevelopment.

Community Development Authority member David Raysich questioned whether developers would respond without knowing how much, if any, financial help the city would provide. The city also could create a tax incremental financing district.

Common Council President Richard Brunner suggested that developers be told the city will provide a "reasonable" amount of financial help.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: www.jsonline.com