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Eminent domain decision imminent

By Paul Snyder

April 8 and 9 are going to be exciting days for anyone interested in the state’s use of eminent domain.

That’s when the case by the owners of Brothers Bar & Grill against the UW System Board of Regents goes to trial in Dane County Circuit Court.

And at a preliminary hearing Tuesday, the excitement was already palpable. Though the two parties are at odds about the UW System’s use of eminent domain in this case, attorneys on both sides could be heard after the hearing using terms such as “fun” and “exciting” to describe the impending trial.

Eminent domain fun and exciting?

Well, for reporters, sure. Any time the words “eminent domain” are uttered in relation to future development, it sets up a pretty clear roadmap for conflict reporting.

But for developers, property owners and the industry at large, it should be a pretty interesting decision too.

On one hand, the attorneys representing Brothers contend the UW System is making way too early of a jump by invoking eminent domain for an estimated $43 million new music performance center. The system’s only raised about $20 million in private contributions for the project and has not yet put together designs, obtained permits or stated any timelines for the project.

The project could still be 10 years away, they argue, so why condemn an active private business now? What indication is there now that the building is going to be constructed?

On the other hand, the UW System owns the rest of the block, and while the timeline may be uncertain, the project was enumerated in the state’s 2007-09 budget. According to David Miller, UW System vice president of capital planning and budget, that’s about as good a guarantee the project will happen as there can be. He said it’s not a question of if it will be built, it’s a question of when.

The UW System doesn’t invoke eminent domain too often — in November, I reported a story which had an official saying the last time it fully used condemnation was the early 1960s.

But Brothers attorneys say if Dane County Circuit Judge Peter Anderson approves the system’s use of it this time, it’s going to open the door to more future use and serve as a tough blow for private property owners anywhere within UW System master plans.

Without a time machine, I have no way of verifying that. But the hubbub around this case, which now includes a state bill policing the UW System’s use of eminent domain, means there are probably some great stories to be had before and after April 8 and 9.

I have two story deadlines per day, which isn’t particularly fun. But knowing this is going to generate a healthy dose of copy? Hey, that’s kind of exciting.

Paul Snyder is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. He neglected to mention April 8 and 9 also fall during the opening week of the Major League Baseball season.

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