Oak Creek officials on Tuesday dropped plans to acquire Earl Giefer’s farm to support new development after the plan was criticized as abusing the Wisconsin eminent domain law.
The city’s Common Council unanimously voted to drop the plan to declare Giefer’s 24.4-acre farm blighted, which is the first step governments must take when using eminent domain to acquire land.
The city’s original decision to use eminent domain drew public criticism from groups, including the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin, and caught the attention of the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit law firm that takes on cases that affect eminent domain law.
Giefer, sitting in his farmland at 15023 S. Howell Ave. Tuesday afternoon, said he does not want to sell the land because, at age 94, he has no desire for money. He said he only wants to keep the land, which he visits daily to tend his herd of about one dozen cattle.
“You change it over into worthless money,” he said of selling the property for development. “What good is money? It’s a worthless piece of paper with numbers on it. People go for it. They think it’s God to them, but it ain’t.”
Giefer gestured over his shoulder at the barns where he keeps his cattle and said, “I go to church back there.”
Oak Creek City Attorney Lawrence Haskin said city staff started the effort to declare Geifer’s farm blighted out of concerns it would hamper development on neighboring land. The city is negotiating with WisPark LLC, the Milwaukee-based development arm of We Energies, to develop a business park on the 171 acres it owns around Giefer’s farm, he said.
The farm, Haskin said, would make the land less attractive to potential business park tenants and hamper city officials’ efforts to increase Oak Creek’s property tax base.
“The perception was that, given the location of the Giefer’s property in relation to the business park,” he said, “that it would be an impediment to development of this business park.”
The city acquired 255 acres of land around Giefer’s farm in 2009 and sold 171 acres to WisPark, held 34 acres as a nature conservancy and sold the remaining 50 acres to the Oak Creek Franklin School District for construction of a new school. As part of the deal to sell land to WisPark for development, the city agreed to make efforts to purchase Giefer’s property.
Jason Adkins, staff attorney in the Minnesota Chapter of the Institute for Justice, said it is a misuse of eminent domain authority to use it to increase private development and property tax generation. He said the institute is considering mounting a push in 2011 to get the Wisconsin Legislature to rewrite state eminent domain law to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Wisconsin’s definition of blight, he said, is too loose and lets municipalities justify almost any property as being blighted.
“The blight definition is so expansive that almost any property can be declared blighted,” Adkins said, “and we are seeing this here with a farm being declared an urban blight.”
The city, Haskin said, was willing to offer up to $1.2 million for the land and negotiate a deal with Giefer whereby he could keep the farm until he dies. But Giefer, he said, was not interested in selling.
Giefer said he hasn’t lived a day without spending some time on the farm in Oak Creek where he grew up, and is not interested in leaving now.
“At 94 years old, why should I go anywhere?” he said. “The cemetery is the next place for me.”
Lawrence Haskin, Oak Creek city attorney, explains city staff members’ decision to consider declaring Earl Giefer’s 24.4-acre property a blight on city development.