Since the decision by the United States Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London many states across the country have taken measures to help protect the rights of private ownership. The controversial Kelo decision held that a local government can take the private property of one person and give it to another private entity. While the Court’s ruling was seen by many as a serious blow to citizen’s constitutionally protected rights of private property ownership, the decision prompted a number of states to initiate legislative reform to help curb eminent domain abuse.
The Castle Coalition has released a report, grading each of the states based on their efforts to protect private property owners and their rights based on changes in their respective state laws. The Castle Coalition is the Institute for Justice’s nationwide grassroots property rights activism project that teaches home and small business owners how to protect themselves and stand up to abuse by governments and developers who seek to use eminent domain to take private property for their own gain. Stated below is the letter grade, as given by the Castle Coalition, along with a description of the changes that have occurred since Kelo v. City of New London.
In 2006, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 657, which significantly tightened the grounds of how private property could be deemed blighted. The bill prohibits the government from designating large areas as blighted, when the actual blighted area consists of a small portion of the area. This bill aided property owners’ rights because it prohibits a condemning authority from deeming entire neighborhoods blighted. Additionally, now condemning authorities must prove any individual residential property to be actually blighted before an authority can commence an eminent domain proceeding. In the state of Wisconsin though, the definition of “blight” still remains at large and open to interpretation, so unfortunately, this means that property owners are still in a vulnerable state because of the open interpretation.
Click to read more information about Assembly Bill 657.
The state of Wisconsin responded to Kelo by passing legislation that prevents the government from using eminent domain to acquire property for economic development. What they failed to provide is a tightened definition of blight, which would go a long way towards protecting property owner rights. The US Supreme court stated long ago that ‘blight’ satisfied the public use requirement, which therefore provided governing agencies with the authority to use eminent domain to acquire ‘blighted’ property. Since WI has failed to provide a tightened definition of ‘blight’, governing agencies can easily abuse this designation to acquire ‘blighted’ property for ‘redevelopment’.
Until Wisconsin establishes a strong statutory definition of blight to limit the government’s use of this designation, property owners will still be susceptible to unwarranted property acquisitions.
Although Wisconsin property owners have minimal rights if their property is designated ‘blighted’, some WI residents have found an alternate remedy to stop the acquisition of their property for redevelopment. Property owners have a voice and more importantly a vote. When the City of Greenfield created a redevelopment area and designated properties as ‘blighted’, residents exercised their freedom of speech and publicly opposed the project. Their opposition generated national attention and ultimately persuaded the City to stop the project. And how can we forget about 94 year old Earl Geifer whose property was to be acquired by eminent domain and in turn sold to a developer? Public outcry coupled with the support of the Castle Coalition effectively persuaded the City of Oak Creek to stop the condemnation process.
Until WI tightens the definition of blight, Wisconsin property owners are encouraged to use alternate remedies such as demanding legislative change and voting city officials out of office who support the use of eminent domain to acquire property that, for all practical purposes, is not blighted. Orchestrating support within the community to generate publicity is another grassroots remedy that should be used by property owners to help persuade city officials to shelve projects permanently.