City uproots idea to acquire farm

Blighted or not, rural land won't transfer ownership through eminent domain

June 1, 2010

Oak Creek — The Common Council has halted discussions on whether to use eminent domain to forcibly acquire a 94-year-old man's farm.

The council Tuesday night voted unanimously to discontinue the process to determine whether the property at 10523 S. Howell Ave. is blighted under Wisconsin law, a move that would have allowed the city to take control of the 25-acre property if it fairly compensated the owner.

Mayor Dick Bolender last week asked aldermen to stop discussions after it had become apparent a mutual agreement between the city and family of Earl Giefer was not forthcoming.

Blight versus rights

Giefer's land is situated near Wispark LLC's efforts to develop a business park, which, if brought to fruition, would ease residents' tax burden, city officials say, noting the farm, in its current condition, could impede those efforts.

However, a backlash ensued after the Community Development Authority initially scheduled a public hearing on the "blight" issue and the topic was discussed on talk radio, local blogs and OakCreekNOW.com.

Many criticized the proposal on the presumption that the city would forcibly acquire land from a private property owner only to sell it to a private developer.

A few dozen people, with several holding signs, attended Tuesday's Common Council meeting in opposition to the eminent domain proceedings.

Oak Creek Attorney Lawrence Haskin characterized it as "a classic struggle of property owners' rights versus progress," adding: "The court of public opinion has spoken."

Some city officials believe the farm legally qualifies as "blight." Haskin said in a memo to council members that if they voted to end discussions, city staff plans to enforce all applicable city codes to bring the property into compliance with local law.

Cultivating negotiations

Discussions between the city and Giefer's attorney have been ongoing since 2008 involving the property on which Giefer lived almost all of his of life until a house fire that year. He still tends to the land and cattle.

According to the city, two different appraisals estimated the farm's value at $760,000 and $1.2 million. The family's attorney, T. Michael Schober, wrote in a March 2009 letter to Haskin that the Giefers believe the property is worth more than those appraisals.

The city was prepared to offer $1.2 million or more for the farm, Haskin said during Tuesday's meeting. In addition, the city discussed allowing Giefer to have full use of the property for the rest of his life.

The Giefers were not interested in any of it. Earl Giefer and his niece, Edna Adams, said in separate interviews the family does not want to sell the property at any cost, saying the plan has always been for Earl to hand the farm down to Adams' sister.

Live and let live

Giefer, wearing overalls, a hat and sunglasses, sat in the first row at Tuesday's meeting. Speaking outside City Hall shortly afterward, he was sharply critical of the city for letting discussions get to this point.

"Do unto others as you would like done to you. They don't understand that," Giefer said. "I ain't bothering them. Why must they bother me? Sure they want the land. They can wait awhile. They ain't supposed to be in the real estate business in the first place."

Haskin also said criticism of the city should not be directed at the mayor or Common Council, saying the decision to schedule the June 2 public hearing was that of city staff.

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