Little Chute denies request to use eminent domain: Appleton WI Post-Crescent, 9/21/07

Village officials hope to aid talks with farmers for developer's access

By J. E. Espino

Eminent domain issues do not arise often in Little Chute [WI]. But when they do, things can get controversial.

On Wednesday, the Village Board rejected a housing developer's request to take control of a sliver of land owned by Peter and Paul Van Groll, two brothers who live in the Town of Vandenbroek.

Derek Erickson and his partner, Dion Volk, of Erickson Construction & Development need the land to access 29 acres to the north that they want to buy.

The meeting drew the interest of an attorney, who said he was there to defend the Constitution, a former village president and a Little Chute family firmly against the use of eminent domain.

Eminent domain is the power of a government body to buy private property against the owner's wishes if it is deemed in the public interest.

"Public persona does not like to see governments pick on the little guy," said Village President Chuck Fischer.

The last time the village dealt with a similar situation was in 1997 when a local developer proposed to bring an Osco Drug store to the corner of Main and Madison streets.

The village needed to buy three of six lots and sell them to developer Jerry Van Dyn Hoven who spearheaded the project. He already owned one parcel and had bought two others.

The Community Development Authority had negotiated with the landowners, including an 85-year-old woman. She didn't want to sell her long-time residence. The CDA voted to begin condemnation proceedings to make way for the retail project when plans came undone.

Residents protested the condemnation of the properties. A crowd showed up at a board meeting and hundreds signed petitions against the deal. The board eventually voted against the project.

"If we would've used eminent domain to take that house … I think we would've been tarred and feathered and run out of town," recalled Fischer, then a trustee on the board.

State statutes are fairly broad on the subject, but as a practical matter, eminent domain is rarely used, said Dan Thompson, League of Wisconsin Municipalities executive director.

"The politics of it are even more stringent than the law," he said, primarily because Wisconsinites have a strong sense of property rights.

Little Chute has never used it.

"It scares me as a property owner that somebody can decide they want to put something in because … (it) is superior to what I live in," said Leanne Wildenberg, a Little Chute resident.

Despite written and verbal offers of $30,000 per acre and partnerships, the Van Grolls were not interested in selling a 12-acre strip that abuts Appleton, north of Evergreen Drive, Erickson said.

"I understand the farmer wants nothing to do with it," Erickson said before the board's action on Wednesday. "He wants to sell his entire farm and be done with it. He won't part with 12 acres to bring in a road."

The Van Grolls have suggested in the past they would be willing to sell all 160 acres at $30,000 an acre. That would total $4.8 million.

"We don't want to be there to see what happens to (the farm). We want to be done with it," said Peter Van Groll, a former Vandenbroek town chairman.

Erickson said he is unsure a deal can be negotiated.

Fischer says the village remains supportive of the project and will do what it can to facilitate a deal, but he is emphatic it won't happen through eminent domain.

"The road is not etched in stone," he said. "It's kind of part of the comprehensive plan, but I see no reason why the location of the proposed road can't be changed or switched."

Fischer said he is confident development will come to the area once Evergreen Drive is upgraded to a four-lane, concrete road in 2009.

"There will be some requests for more annexations and as that goes along, the Van Grolls (land) will all become more valuable, and I think there will be a good chance one, two or three developers would say, 'OK we'll buy the whole farm, and annex to the village,'" he said. "It might be in two years. It might be in 10."

Appleton WI Post-Crescent: http://www.postcrescent.com