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Lawmaker: Abuse should prompt oversight (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

The UW System’s use of eminent domain to acquire a downtown Madison building is prompting a legislative call for more oversight of the process.

But the bill that would create that oversight focuses only on the UW System and its use of eminent domain, or condemnation.

“I think our real question is that there’s a long list of government entities that have the statutory authority to use condemnation,” said David Miller, UW System vice president of capital planning and budget. “Why are we being singled out? It just seems very odd.”

The UW System last invoked eminent domain in 1990 for the Grainger Hall project on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus but settled on a price for the property before acquiring it, said David Giroux, UW System spokesman. The UW System last followed through with eminent domain in the early 1960s to acquire land for dorms on the southeast side of the UW-Madison campus.

The bill — introduced by State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore — would require the UW System Board of Regents present for review every eminent domain proposal to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance before proceeding. Vruwink was unavailable to comment on the bill.

The bill stems from a lawsuit between the board of regents and the owners of Brothers Bar & Grill in Madison. The bar owners last month sued the board because it used eminent domain, rather than negotiating a purchase price, to acquire the bar building on University Avenue.

According to state law, the UW System can use eminent domain to acquire private property if the system can argue future use is for the public good.

Miller said the UW-Madison owns the rest of the block on which Brothers is located and plans to build an estimated $40 million performance center for the school of music.

But Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney for Madison-based Godfrey & Kahn SC representing Brothers, said the university does not have architectural drawings, detailed plans or a timeline for the project.

“You can’t condemn a property for a concept,” he said. “That’s why this bill is important. It shows us the egregious nature of the condemnation process and that the board of regents abused its power.”

But even if the bill becomes law, it will not be retroactive, meaning the Brothers lawsuit still must be determined by a judge.

The UW System rarely uses eminent domain, Miller said, so he does not understand why lawmakers should watch the system so closely while state agencies, such as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, use eminent domain more often.

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said the bill could set a dangerous precedent for more intense government oversight.

“In general, I feel we have to be fairly thoughtful of looking on one agency or the operation of its administration and setting policy,” said Miller, who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance. “The reason we’ve set up the board of regents and the Public Service Commission as independent bodies is that they can make decisions without undue political or parochial influence.”

If the UW System or other agencies repeatedly abuse eminent domain, Mark Miller said, then more oversight might be needed.

“But I’m surprised to hear they’re using it at all,” he said of the UW System. “If it’s not been used that often, then maybe it’s better not to take a look at it.”

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