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2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Wisconsin Gets A “C+”

Arlington, Va.—According to a 50-state eminent domain report card released today, in the two years since the infamous Kelo eminent domain ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed eminent domain for private gain, Wisconsin has passed some legislation to protect homeowners from eminent domain abuse, but much more work needs to be done. The extent of the new law prevents bogus “blight” designations for residential properties, but does not protect other property owners.

“Wisconsin homeowners are slightly more protected from eminent domain abuse today than they were the day the Kelo decision was announced,” said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, a national grassroots organization that examined and graded eminent domain laws for each of the 50 states since the Kelo ruling. Read the report at: www.CastleCoalition.org/publications/report_card.

According to the report, “The state of Wisconsin made some significant improvements to its eminent domain laws by enacting Assembly Bill 657 in 2006.” Wisconsin’s new legislation prohibits the government from designating large areas as “blighted” based on the condition of a small number of properties within that area. The bill provides some increased protection for residential properties by adding new factors to the legal definition of blight. Specifically, the law requires that residential property be “abandoned” or converted from single to multiple units and be in a high-crime area in order for it to be designated “blighted.” In addition, the bill contains a vital protection—the requirement that each specific residential property be blighted before it can be acquired and transferred to a private entity. These changes to the law make it significantly more difficult for governments to target residential property for private profit, though other types of property, like small businesses and farms, remain vulnerable. As the law currently stands for owners of these non-residential properties, blight designations may still be based on subjective and vague terms like “obsolescence” and “faulty lot layout.”

The report concluded, “This law is a significant step forward, but the Wisconsin State Legislature should make a point of addressing the remaining problems in future sessions. A top priority should be replacing the subjective terms in the state’s blight definition with objective factors that can be conclusively demonstrated, so that property owners can take specific action to maintain their properties in such a way that they cannot be threatened with condemnation. Furthermore, the Legislature needs to extend the same protections it has afforded residential property owners to all of the state’s citizens.”

Among the states that passed the strongest reforms protecting property owners are Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, each of which received an A or A- grade. States that received F’s were: Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

“In only two years since Kelo, 41 states have reformed their laws to offer greater protection to small property owners,” said Jenifer Zeigler, legislative affairs attorney with the Castle Coalition. “But much more work remains if homeowners, small business owners, churches and farmers are to be as safe from the unholy alliance of tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers.”

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