Opinion: After My Family’s 15 Year Battle, Property Rights in Wisconsin Have Been Restored
Did you know that if someone owns adjacent properties, government can merge them without the owner’s permission or consent? Neither did I, until I experienced it for myself. But thanks to Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany, a new bill was passed by the Wisconsin legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker so this will never happen to anyone in Wisconsin again.
My brothers and sister and I own the family cabin our parents built back in 1960, on the St. Croix River. We also own the 1-acre, undeveloped lot next door which my parents bought in 1963. Both parcels are part of a subdivision created in the late 1950s with over 60 residential lots. Shortly after our parents passed away in 2002, my siblings and I decided it was time to sell the empty lot and use the proceeds to repair and remodel our 40-year old cabin. We hired an architect and explored the various permits and variances necessary to complete the project.
That is when we got the shock of our lives when we learned the government had “effectively” merged our two properties into one parcel decades before. The ordinance that St. Croix County officials referenced was enacted in the 1970’s, more than ten years after my parents purchased the two properties.
What do you mean, “effectively merged”, we asked? In short, we were told we could not sell our empty lot unless we sold it together with our family cabin next door. This made no sense and was an obvious violation of our property rights. We had always received two, separate property tax statements, we have two separate property identification numbers and every plat map at the county shows two distinct lots. Our cabin was assessed for over $530,000 and the empty lot was assessed for $400,000 as a buildable, residential lot.
We requested a variance from the ordinance, and were denied. We then filed a lawsuit in District Court, and our case was thrown out on summary judgment. We appealed to the Wisconsin Appellate Court and lost. We asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review our case, and they passed. But that didn’t stop us from fighting on.
By this time, the County had re-assessed our property as one parcel, and the total value dropped by nearly $500,000. We felt so strongly that our property rights had been violated, and we were not ready to back down. Thanks to the power of an internet search, we found the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit legal foundation that help people fight government overreach. They listened to our story, immediately recognized the injustice of our situation, embraced our case, and took us to the United States Supreme Court – free of charge.
Then came the disappointing 5-3 decision in June 2017, and we lost again. But our story did not end there. Unknown to my family or me, Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany were waiting in the wings, and immediately sprang into action. They introduced legislation known as the “Homeowners Bill of Rights” in July and it was passed by the Assembly and Senate in November. Among other things, the bill includes measures which protect owners of separate, neighboring lots from having them forcibly combined. Also, if you buy land with the right to build, you keep that right even if lot-size rules later change.
Wisconsin is full of families like ours who own cabins and lakefront properties, and thousands of people will benefit from these changes. But the legislation has special meaning for my family. It is the culmination of our long fight for justice and to defend my late parents’ dream of having a family cabin and gathering place for our family to enjoy for generations.
My parents raised us to respect the Constitution, and stand up for what’s right. We kept our fight going for 15 years because we all knew that mom and dad would have done the same thing. But we also had a lot of help along the way, and many times from complete strangers. From the outstanding legal counsel at Pacific Legal Foundation to the Wisconsin Realtors Association to our new heroes in the state legislation, Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany.
Now that Gov. Walker signed the bill on November 27th, our 15-year battle has come to a glorious end. We are proud of our tenaciousness because it was the right thing to do for our family and for all property owners in Wisconsin. We can only hope that other states will follow our lead and pass similar measures to strengthen their residents’ property rights as well.
Donna Murr is a resident of Eau Claire