PRESS EDITORIAL: We could all be living in a blighted area

Wisconsin’s great Foxconn adventure is being played out in a sea of cash—nearly $4 billion to be given to the company by state taxpayers and millions going to construction companies, road builders, suppliers, landowners, homeowners and others—so it’s not surprising tension is building as people get in line for their share.
    Owners of large parcels of open land in the Racine County Village of Mount Pleasant, in which much of the land earmarked for the 22-million-square-foot Foxconn electronics factory is located, have been offered $50,000 an acre for their property. Most have accepted the offer, which is not surprising in that farmland in the village had been selling for less than half of that amount.
    The land Foxconn wants from the village also includes a number of small residential properties. Their owners have been offered 40% over the estimated fair market value, but some of them don’t want to sell their homes at that price. As things stand, they don’t have a choice. The Mount Pleasant government gained the power to condemn and seize the properties by declaring the land intended for Foxconn to be a blighted area.
    The homeowners challenged the blight designation in a lawsuit filled last week. Every Wisconsin property owner should be pulling for them, for if the precedent set by Mount Pleasant’s flagrant misuse of the blight designation stands, everyone’s property is theoretically at risk.
    By no reasonable definition is the Mount Pleasant land blighted. In fact, a section of a Wisconsin statute titled “When condemnation is not to be exercised” specifies that properties with one dwelling unit cannot be considered blighted if the dwellings are occupied by the owner or close family members and the area does not have a high crime rate.
    The Mount Pleasant Village Board, nonetheless, found the legal cover it was looking for in another Wisconsin law, the Blight Elimination and Slum Clearance Act. A paragraph of that statute contains a ridiculously broad definition of a blighted area as any area that “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”
    It is a painful irony that the law was passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s execrable Kelo decision upholding a city’s right to condemn non-blighted property for use by private developers, which is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in the history of the high court. The Wisconsin law protects property owners from a Kelo type of non-blight condemnation, but at the same time leaves them vulnerable by expanding the definition of blight to apply to almost any property.
    In their lawsuit, the Mount Pleasant homeowners accurately summarize the law’s potential for misuse: “If prime Wisconsin farmland and lovingly maintained rural residences can be declared blighted, and taken to sell or give to massive factories, then almost every inch of the state of Wisconsin is blighted, and capable of being seized by government at any time to be sold, leased or given to private companies.”
    For the suing homeowners, the issue in this case is mainly, like so much about the Foxconn story, money. They may have comfortable houses and nice yards they don’t want to leave, but with the Foxconn plant inevitable, they don’t have a realistic choice. But they do want to be well paid for moving.
    The lawsuit claims the village is using the blight designation to gain leverage in negotiating with small property owners.
    The village appears to be offering less of a premium to the homeowners than they gave to the big landowners.
    What’s more, the lawsuit claims, the village recently purchased a 1.5 acre parcel that is not in the blighted area but is needed for roads to service Foxconn for many times its market value. The fair market value was $115,400. The village paid $784,000.
    For the uninvolved citizens watching this case, the issue is purely property rights. If the Village of Mount Pleasant’s use of an outrageously over-broad definition of blight to condemn homes stands, those rights are clearly endangered.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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