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Blight ruling hangs over Oak Creek farm

Oak Creek officials are considering using eminent domain to acquire property along South Howell Avenue owned by Earl Giefer to clear the way for development. (Photo by Corey Hengen)

Oak Creek officials are considering using eminent domain to acquire property along South Howell Avenue owned by Earl Giefer to clear the way for development. (Photo by Corey Hengen)

By Sean Ryan

A dispute over what qualifies as blight is at the heart of Oak Creek’s possible use of eminent domain to take a farm and clear the way for development.

“Some people may say the land should be condemned because it’s full of garbage,” said Valentine Vogel, who lives across the street from the farm on South Howell Avenue. “Well, what do you think a farm is?”

The farm, owned by 94-year-old Earl Giefer, is not contaminated and does not pose a public health risk to the community. But the city is taking the first step toward using eminent domain to acquire the farm.

To do that, the city would first need to declare the farm blighted because the property is poorly maintained and inconsistent with development strategies.

Vogel said he sees equipment and barns common to farms on Giefer’s property rather than a blight. Giefer’s friends and family agreed Wednesday night when they asked the city not to acquire the private farm.

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Giefer no longer lives on the land because the house there burned down in 2008, but he still tends cows and farms the property, said Susanne Mordja, Giefer’s niece.

Giefer’s property is in the middle of an area the city has slated for redevelopment through a tax-incremental financing district. The city is considering using eminent domain because the farm could discourage development on neighboring land owned by Milwaukee-based Wispark LLC, said Doug Seymour, Oak Creek director of community development.

Oak Creek and Wispark signed an agreement to buy a 225-acre site surrounding Giefer’s land. Wispark is slated to develop 169 acres, the local school district will build a new school on 50 acres and the rest of the property will be preserved. Under that agreement, the city agreed to consider acquiring Giefer’s 24.4-acre farm.

Seymour said the Oak Creek Community Development Authority does not have immediate plans for the property if it is acquired through eminent domain.

“The CDA and the Common Council needs to ultimately balance the rights of the property owner versus the rights of the overall community,” Seymour said.

The Oak Creek CDA has scheduled a June 2 public hearing to consider declaring the property blighted. The property meets the legal definition of blight because it is not well maintained, has an unpaved driveway, is inconsistent with the community’s growth and is underused, according to a report commissioned by the city.

The public authority to condemn and acquire land was originally a way to deal with such public health threats as rats, said S. Richard Heymann, adjunct professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But governments increasingly use the power to acquire land to boost development with the justification the economic growth helps the entire community, he said.

“Now it is not so narrow and for the purpose of considering broader issues than the more traditional, easy issues like public health,” Heymann said.

There is not much case law on the subject because it is a relatively recent trend where governments are using blight and eminent domain to encourage development, Heymann said. The landmark case was the 2006 Kelo v. City of New London U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined governments can use eminent domain to acquire land with the goal of promoting private development that benefits the broader community.

Vogel said he wants to know how the property can avoid the blight designation. Whatever needs to be done, he said, he would do it so Giefer can keep the land.

“If we can move ahead and clean the property to the state specifications,” he said, “then would they leave their hands off the property?”

9 comments

  1. The New London project fell through and they took the land from those people for nothing, now it’s a blight. The government continues to try to find ways to steal from those who can’t defend themselves. Wasn’t the constitution written to protect the people? Sounds like a deal was cut with a developer long before the property was acquired!!! Why isn’t the developer making offers to the owner? LEGALIZED THEFT is what this is!!

  2. If I recall correctly the New London case involved some waterfront property that businesses wanted to get their hands on without paying fair market value. The victims quite possibly would have sold had the businesses offered enough money- they were low income folks. But instead the local government did the bidding of the mega businesses. The whole thing was disgusting and one of the few times I’ve agreed with the conservatives on the SCOTUS. If this farm is so valueable, let the offers come rolling in.

  3. This is disgusting! Mr. Giefer has lived there long before Wispack or any of the surrounding spawl. Now, once again, the powerful and special interest is ready to bully a little old man and his cows. We saw this on the east side in the Lyon and Cass neighborhood-many houses were of historical value-Solomon Juneau lived in the other half of the house that connected to my grandmother’s. They destroyed it all to build that freeway to nowhere! You are all greedy humans, and will meet the maker one day. Then you will get your just reward! Do any of you have souls or hearts? Or is it always the almighty dollar…

  4. As a resident of Oak Creek, the City has gone too far. They need to step back ASAP. This is not what our founding fathers had in mind when they established this great country.

  5. “Some people may say the land should be condemned because it’s full of garbage,” said Valentine Vogel, who lives across the street from the farm on South Howell Avenue. “Well, what do you think a farm is?”

    I’ve got to disagree with this statement. My husband’s grandmother has a farm in Caledonia, it’s old and it’s not “full of junk”. In fact, most farms I’ve seen in my life are quite particular about being full of junk as it’s a safety hazard to humans and animals alike. I’m familiar with this farm as I’ve driven past it many times. It is full of junk..unbelieveably so..however I don’t believe anyone should take this property from this man.

  6. What’s next, theft of land for the extension of the Lake Parkway? My home might be right in the path of that. Hey, it’s okay, just take the land of about 50 homes away for a road. This is the first time I have a bad taste for this city.

  7. This is so wrong to take land in this manner. Drive up and down Howell Ave. and look at all the other property that has real junk in there yard. And look at other cities that have done the same for development now they have empty land and empty retail / buisness space. Just drive up and down Miller Pkwy. / Burnham St. or Mitchell St. east of Miller Pkwy. This type of blight just happens to have a pretty face on it when its new. I think in this economy the city of Oak Creek could find better things to do with tax payer money and time. I think that most city personal forget their paycheck and benifets are payed for by tax payers other than big companys that use and abuse T.I.F. programs until the time frame has expired and move on to the next T.I.F. development

  8. I agree with Ms Vogel — that the farm needs some cleaning. Maybe we could help the elderly farmer — with his approval.. Next I would call for the resignation of the Oak Creek CDA — what a bunch of pompous bureaucrats. These are not the kind of people that we need representing us — I can’t imagine their level of ignorance. It is too bad that such a collection of incompetence can meet to make any decisions.

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