A bill designed to level the playing field when it comes to annexation among towns, villages and cities might also prolong already lengthy waiting periods for development.
“The longer annexation is delayed, the longer it takes things to happen,” said Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association. “From a developer’s standpoint, that’s a pain, because towns will challenge annexation at the drop of a hat.”
Nevertheless, the challenges often prove fruitless because courts have said towns have no standing to fight annexation requests.
But the Assembly Committee on Renewable Energy and Rural Affairs on Thursday held a public hearing on a bill that would allow Wisconsin towns to legally challenge annexation if the challenge is backed by unanimous approval of town board members.
State Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, said the bill was inspired by a recent dispute between the town and village of Merrimac over the village annexing town land that was not adjacent to village borders.
Merrimac Town Administrator Tim McCumber said the town fought the annexation, since the land parcel was not contiguous with village borders and could not be accessed without first crossing town property.
However, the case was thrown out at both the circuit and state Supreme Court level.
“They (the courts) never talked about whether it was a legal annexation,” McCumber said. “They just said the township had no standing to fight it.”
A 2003 change to annexation laws omitted the word “contiguous,” a move that affected the ability of towns to fight annexations like the one in Merrimac.
The change, however, afforded towns a ban on annexation across county lines without town and county board approval. Also, cities that annex land have to pay property taxes to towns on the parcel for five years after annexing it.
Richard Grant, former Merrimac town chairman, testified Thursday that the deal equated to prostitution.
“They gave away the right to govern for money,” he said. “And for five years? Five years is nothing.”
Although the law might not be on their side, towns that attempt to fight annexation can often delay the development process. For several developers around the state, that causes frustration.
Brad Ziegler, president of Hartland-based Della Properties LLC, first proposed the $14 million, mixed-use Windsor Corners project in 2006. But ongoing annexation debates between the town of Windsor and village of DeForest have left the project up in the air.
“I’ve been in situations where a town tells me it’s strictly a matter of time before this parcel I’m looking at is annexed,” he said. “Allowing towns the opportunity to stop annexation would just provide another step to work through.”
The bill’s opponents argued Thursday for an amendment adding the word “contiguous” to the annexation language. Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said adding the word automatically restores a town’s ability to challenge annexation.
“There are aggressive lawyers out there who think they can make a reasonable argument for annexation simply because ‘contiguity’ is not in the law,” he said.
But state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, said a word might not stop the problem.
“We have laws that say you can’t run a stop sign,” Smith said, “but people run stop signs.”
Complicating matters further, state statutes do not define contiguous land, although several courts have defined it as land that is adjacent to existing property.
Larson agreed adding “contiguous” to the bill would eliminate the need to provide towns with any more legal standing against villages and cities.
“The Legislature thinks this is a town-versus-city issue,” he said. “It’s really a property-owner issue dealing with determining which local government provides the best level of services.”