Homeowner takes development battle to Supreme Court (UPDATE)
A homeowner’s 18-year pursuit of payback from Dodgeville has reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which will decide if Glen Hocking filed his water runoff lawsuit four years too late.
Supreme Court justices Wednesday will hear oral arguments in a four-year-old lawsuit filed by Hocking against Dodgeville over a 1992 residential subdivision project.
Hocking sued Dodgeville in 2006 over damages to his home. He said water runoff from the subdivision, built uphill from his property, led to mold growth in his home and forced him to move in 2004.
Hocking said he waited until 2006 to file the lawsuit because City Council members, on several occasions in the 1990s, visited his property and told him the city would do something to fix the problem.
“I’m a fool,” he said. “My dad taught me to trust people. I mean, 18 years I’ve waited for them to fix my property or pay me and nothing. You know, don’t just tell me to go to hell.”
Circuit and appellate courts have ruled the city is not responsible for the damage because Hocking’s lawsuit was filed after the state’s 10-year statute of repose, which dictates lawsuits seeking damages must be filed within 10 years of construction. Hocking filed 14 years after construction of the subdivision.
“He should have gone to the city much earlier,” said Ron Trachtenberg, a real estate, land use and construction attorney in the Madison office of Murphy Desmond Lawyers SC. “If you’re noticing issues, you want to immediately engage a lawyer and take the matter up with the city.”
The Supreme Court will decide if Hocking’s discussions with individual council members constitute enough of an agreement with the city to suspend the statute of repose.
“I think it would be very difficult for municipalities to limit their legal exposure based on the comments of one member of the council,” said Peggy Van Horn, who’s representing the city. “You’re not relying on official motions or resolutions.”
According to court documents, the Hockings bought the home in 1978 when the surrounding land was undeveloped. In 1989, Wallace Rogers bought the land surrounding the Hockings’ property and hired Lawrence Schmit, a Dodgeville-based professional engineer, to work on the subdivision. The city also hired Schmit to design and install the streets and sewers.
Schmit declined to comment.
Edwin James, a member of the City Council who met with Hocking in the 1990s, said he never promised the city would take care of the problem.
“In the time I’ve been serving, I’ve learned not to say anything like that,” James said. “Your words can be used against you.”
But if the city’s approval of the subdivision led to the damage to Hocking’s property, James said, Dodgeville still should be held accountable to some degree.
“But I’d say ‘probably’ because I don’t know if he can prove there was never trouble before,” James said. “What if a major storm had come before the development and caused flooding? Would that be our problem?
“It would be irresponsible for us to just go ahead and give him something because then we’d be stuck paying every claim a resident can make against us.”
The Supreme Court’s willingness to review the case means Hocking still has a chance, he said.
“If I didn’t have hope, would I be a fool?” Hocking said. “You figure it out. What else do I have?”