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Annexation bill divides towns, municipalities

By Paul Snyder

Veterans of the annexation battles between towns and municipalities are split over a bill that would define the rules of engagement.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Andy Jorgenson, D-Fort Atkinson, would prevent cities and villages from annexing town land that is not contiguous — or adjacent — to municipal property.

The bill also would give towns the legal authority to fight annexations based on disagreements over whether the property is contiguous. For instance, a town and city could disagree over whether two properties are contiguous if they are separated by a river.

Ed Huck, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, said his organization supports the first half of the bill, but opposes giving towns the right to challenge annexations based on what contiguous is.

The state, when updating its annexation law in 2003, omitted the word “contiguous.” Since then, some municipalities have taken advantage of the loophole. In 2008, for example, the city of Medford annexed a nine-hole golf course three quarters of a mile from city borders.

“That annoyed me,” Huck said. “That’s an attorney looking at the law, seeing ‘contiguous’ isn’t there, the town can’t challenge it, and giving advice based on that.”

Unless the law changes, the door is open to more island-type annexations, said Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.

“Then what you have is towns having to provide upkeep to the roads that basically connect the two parts of the city,” he said. “They can just start cherry-picking properties with high property values.”

Annexations commonly are sparked by town property owners who want to tap municipal services to make their land more desirable for future development. Typically, a group of property owners will sign a petition for annexation into a neighboring municipality. The municipality and Wisconsin Department of Administration then review the petition.

But the DOA’s role is advisory. In a recent review of a request by town of Sun Prairie property owners to have their land annexed by the village of Cottage Grove, the DOA determined the land was not contiguous and recommended rejection.

But Cottage Grove officials Wednesday night approved the annexation of 250 acres from the town of Sun Prairie. It’s not the first, and likely will not be the last, loss for the town, said Town Chairman Lyle Updike.

“If you look around Dane County and look at the comprehensive plans,” he said, “you’ll see towns like Burke, Blooming Grove and Madison are going to cease to exist in 18 to 20 years.”

Updike said if the town had the legal authority, it would have challenged Cottage Grove’s annexation because the state argued the property was not contiguous.

That’s the only argument towns want to make, Stadelman said.

“This bill isn’t going to stop annexations,” he said. “This isn’t going to stop cities from growing. We only want to be able to challenge it if it isn’t contiguous.”

But giving towns that kind of power opens the door to frivolous lawsuits that delay annexation and new development, Huck said.

That’s why Mike Mikalson, Cottage Grove village president, called the bill “flat out horrible” and its proponents shortsighted.

“We can’t block cities and villages from growing,” he said. “The big question is whether we want economic development or not. This bill is a barrier that would prevent that.”

The land Cottage Grove will annex, Mikalson said, will be used for commercial and industrial development. The town would have tried to preserve the property as farmland.

Jorgensen said the bill is about equality; not slowing growth.

“Nobody should have the trump card when it comes to annexation,” he said. “Towns have no say whatsoever, and all I want is for everybody to be able to sit at the same table and work this out reasonably.”

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