The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation is lending its support to proposed state legislation that would narrow the applicability of eminent domain. The federation listed the Kelo v. New London U.S. Supreme Court decision as a top issue of 2005, and listed legislation to counter that decision as a priority for 2006.
The Kelo ruling affirmed municipalities' authority to use eminent domain to acquire a property and lease or sell it to a private entity for redevelopment. Wisconsin state law already allowed this. The new proposal awaiting a state Senate vote would set criteria — such as a higher crime rate — that targeted properties would have to meet.
"It (Kelo) flipped a light switch on the power that municipalities had," said Tom Thieding, executive director of public relations for the federation. He said the federation is interested in protecting property rights of people who own agricultural land around municipalities that could be targeted for redevelopment.
"From agriculture's perspective, there's a real concern for agricultural land that's right around a municipality because agricultural land is taxed at a lower rate," Thieding said. "They could pretty much straight out say, ‘We want this land, and we're going to condemn it.'"
A concern is that, even if a city sits down to negotiate a price with a property owner, its eminent domain authority would overshadow the discussion, Thieding said. "The private landowner is always at a disadvantage because it's always hanging out there," he said. "I think that allows municipalities to lowball a little bit because they know they can do that."
Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, authored the bill the federation is supporting. It said that property a municipality targets for eminent domain with the intent of conveying it to a private entity must be blighted. That could mean it is dilapidated, unsanitary, overcrowded or too large for its lot, but it must be "detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare."
Any residential property must be abandoned and have a higher crime rate than the municipality it's located in. "It defines the term ‘blighted property,'" Thieding said. "They're trying to narrow it down, so that's a starting point."
Williams' bill has 37 sponsors in the state Assembly and Senate. The state Assembly passed it on an 88-9 vote on Sept. 27. The Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy — with co-sponsor Sen. David Zein, R-Eau Claire, as chairman — will consider it next. Two of its four remaining members are also sponsors.
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