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Town property dispute has historic significance

By Paul Snyder

The development community is urging caution as Dane County considers a town’s request to designate as historic 34 acres around an old church.

“The land does not qualify as historic,” said Ron Trachtenberg, a real estate development attorney with Madison-based Murphy Desmond Lawyers SC. “So what’s really going on is whether the town will abandon its condemnation process and try to stop development by getting the county to apply a historic district.”

Most of the 34 acres already is town of Perry property, said Town Clerk Mary Price. The 20-foot-by-20-foot Hague Log Church is at the center of the property, and Perry residents for 10 years have tried to make property into a park, she said.

Those efforts began in 2001 when the town bought three properties neighboring the church for a combined price of $100,114.

But the church’s neighbor to the north, David Gehl, was unwilling to sell. So the town began the process of acquiring his property through eminent domain. In 2008, the Dane County Condemnation Commission ordered the town pay $73,750 for the property.

Gehl, who now lives in Verona, appealed the order in Dane County Circuit Court, arguing the price was too low. In February 2009, a jury ruled the town should pay $312,500.

Gehl said he has not received a penny.

Perry hasn’t paid, Price said, because it has not received Judge Juan Colas order to pay. Even when that arrives, she said, the town likely will appeal the ruling.

The Hague Log Church is on the National Register of Historic Places. Price said the town’s attempt to designate the 34 acres was not aimed at Gehl, but to protect the site. However, she said, one of the effects will be the prevention of new development.

Gehl said he doesn’t dispute the church’s historic significance; he disputes the land’s significance.

“If you can make a historic district beyond a cataloged area, why not just make the whole county a historic district?” he said. “Why not make the whole state a historic district?”

That’s the problem facing Dane County if supervisors designate the land, said Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

“Why is that historic?” he said. “Why is one piece of dirt historic and the other isn’t? The big question becomes: Where does it stop?”

It’s an issue the county should avoid, said County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz.

The Dane County Zoning and Land Regulation Committee on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on designating the land as historic. Bruskewitz said she will ask the county to delay action until the matter is out of the court system.

“If we can declare a next door property with no historic significance is a historic district, we can take a lot of property,” she said. “To me, it’s government power run amok. It’s very dangerous.”

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