Get this right and get it done.
Even as groundbreaking nears for initial construction on the massive $10 billion Foxconn manufacturing campus that holds the potential to buoy the entire regional economy, there remain disputes with local homeowners over land acquisition for the project.
Already, the Village of Mount Pleasant has acquired two-thirds of the 2,900 acres needed for the project; late last month, the village Community Development Authority approved the land borders, but still has to act on designating the area as “blighted” in order to acquire remaining parcels using eminent domain. That, of course, has riled up affected homeowners.
We have strongly supported the Foxconn project from its inception and share the view that it could truly transform the Racine-area economy with thousands of jobs, construction work and tangential support and service industries. A report last weekend by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce supported that view, with projections that the Foxconn development could add $51.5 billion to Wisconsin’s gross domestic product over the next 15 years.
At the same time, we have always cast a wary eye over the use of eminent domain to force homeowners to sell their land or homes to government. We were highly critical of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., in 2005: It said the city could seize private property from its owners and sell it to developers as part of a broader economic development plan. While land seizures have historically been used for “public uses” — such as roads, schools, dams, parks and the like — the Kelo ruling expanded that to “public purpose,” which could include selling it to a developer to generate greater economic activity from the property, and of course, more tax revenue.
That Kelo ruling triggered outrage across the country; more than 30 states, including Wisconsin, passed laws within a year that restore the rights of property owners and only allow such seizures for development when a property has been found to be “blighted.”
That is the legal hook that Mount Pleasant is using.
Alan Marcuvitz, Mount Pleasant’s property acquisition attorney, told the CDA meeting state law says a blighted area can be “an area which is predominantly open, and which because of obsolete planning, diversity of ownership, deterioration of structures or of site improvements or otherwise substantially impairs or arrest the sound growth of the community.”
“Even though there may not be a single blighted property, the area may still be determined as a blighted area, which allows the acquisition of non-blighted properties,” Marcuvitz said.
Attorneys for the affected homeowners disputed that and said the CDA was applying the wrong statute to use eminent domain.
“This is not a law that’s supposed to apply to farmland and nice houses,” said Erik Olsen, an attorney for a Madison law firm representing property owners.
We are not legal scholars, but when the state Legislature passed its law in 2006, we noted that it defined homes or areas as those that are abandoned or in an area where the crime rate is three times higher than that of the community in general. That hardly seems to fit the disputed Mount Pleasant area.
So as the CDA takes comment on its proposed “blighted designation” and readies for a vote April 17, the lines appear to be drawn — and it could lead to lengthy legal dispute and court action.
In our view, that is the wrong path to take. Before the village and homeowners go down that road, we would ask them to consider these thoughts:
The Foxconn campus is probably coming regardless of whether homeowners like it. We don’t know where the unacquired homes and parcels are or whether any of them are vital to the main campus, but our guess is that Foxconn could build its campus around any holdout parcels if it needed to. That would leave those homes in isolated pockets or a subdivision surrounded by Foxconn buildings, support industries, expanded and heavily trafficked service roads. These would not be bucolic homes in the country.
Mount Pleasant has offered 40 percent above the market value required by state law for the acquisition of the hold-out properties, along with relocation expenses — an amount that village officials contend is fair and generous. But a federal lawsuit filed by 12 homeowners representing 18 acres of land in the acquisition area argued that large-tract landowners in the area were paid seven to 10 times the value of their land. Recent news reports support that, saying some of the open land netted $50,000 per acre, compared to $4,300 per acre to $8,000 per acre three to six years ago. If money is the sole issue, there should be room for some compromise.
One final thought. The grandiose plans for the Fort Trumbull neighborhood in New London, Conn., didn’t fare well despite the Kelo court ruling. What had been planned as a $300 million research center for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, along with a hotel, residential and office space did not come to be. Even as the court battle raged, Pfizer began to pull out and other investors were unwilling to commit. Pfizer left New London in 2009 and the city lost 1,400 jobs. Several homes were razed and in the intervening years a few plans to redevelop the area fell through. The last news report we saw said “the only creatures making use of (the area) in the intervening years have been a colony of feral cats.”
We’ll take Foxconn over feral cats. It’s important for southeastern Wisconsin to get this right — and to respect homeowners and their rights — and then move on and get this done.