It was Alexander Graham Bell who first proclaimed, “When one door closes, another door opens.” This statement perfectly describes what has happened to me and my family.
After a disappointing setback at the U.S. Supreme Court, our crusade for our property rights has entered a new phase. In their ruling last June, the high court allowed St. Croix County to get away with a “taking” of our private property. But promising new legislation was just introduced to undo the damage in Wisconsin while setting an example for other states to follow.
Our story starts with a dream. Like many American families, my parents dreamed about owning a cabin for our family to enjoy for generations. Their dreams came true in 1960 when they purchased a lot on the St. Croix River and built a modest, 950 square foot cabin. Three years later, they invested in the still-undeveloped one-acre lot next door.
My parents dreamed about building their retirement home on this beautiful property and leaving the cabin for us kids. My father also believed that purchasing the adjacent lot was a good investment. He called it his “rainy day fund” as he knew he could sell it in the future should the need arise.
Unfortunately, my father suffered a stroke shortly after he retired, and his dream of building a retirement home ended. Since my father was no longer physically able to enjoy the cabin, my parents signed it over to me and my siblings in 1994. The following year, they gave us the lot next door.
While this may sound like a typical, American family dream of passing along property from one generation to the next, it has turned out to be anything but.
In the early 2000s, my brothers and sister and I decided it was time to repair and improve our 40-year-old cabin. We agreed to fund the project by selling the lot next door. But the government would not let us sell it unless we sold the cabin as well. Without any notice or permission, the government had “effectively merged” our two properties together.
The regulations imposed on our property include a terribly unfair double standard. If our undeveloped lot was owned by anyone else, they could development it. It is only my family that is prohibited from making use of it, simply because we also own the adjoining cabin parcel. My parents raised us to respect the Constitution and the freedoms it protects. There was no question that we had to fight for our rights.
According to the Fifth Amendment, if the government takes your property they must pay you for it. St. Croix County property records show our cabin had an assessed value of $518,900 in 2010 and the undeveloped lot had an assessed value of $475,000. After losing in the courts, the two parcels are now assessed as one parcel with a total value of $485,600. Once the vacant lot became unbuildable and unsellable, the total value of our property decreased by over $500,000.
We were thrilled when the Supreme Court took our case and optimistic that we would have a successful outcome for all Americans. But hope turned to heartache when the decision came down on a 5-3 vote on the side of the government using a confusing new test that, according to legal experts, makes it more difficult to challenge land-use restrictions. Not only did we lose our case, we felt as if the decision just made things worse for all Americans.
But then another door opened. Only a few short hours after receiving the disappointing news from the Supreme Court, I got a message from my new hero. State Representative Adam Jarchow lifted the gloom and declared, “Donna, I have a bill drafted and ready to roll to fix your issue, and I am 100 percent committed to fixing this injustice.” I started to cry.
On June 20, Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany unveiled legislation to shore up the property rights that the Supreme Court failed to defend. First, their proposal states that if you buy land in Wisconsin with the right to build, you keep that right even if lot-size rules change which make your property “too small” for construction. You’ll be “grandfathered” in and can still build as originally promised. Second, owners of separate, neighboring lots cannot have them forcibly combined by government, and regulators will no longer be able to use a “forced merger” as a ploy to avoid paying compensation.
As Rep. Jarchow points out, many people around Wisconsin are in the same boat as my family. Their property has been rendered useless by changes in lot size rules, and they have felt powerless against city hall. If I didn’t have a big, supportive family and the Pacific Legal Foundation to help with the legal costs, I may have given up this fight 12 years ago. But our property rights are just too important to ever back down.
Our experience should be a reminder to everyone that we cannot take our property rights for granted. If my parents were alive, they would have fought hard to protect their rights and their dreams. While this new door remains open, there is renewed hope that property rights will gain back the strength that was lost on June 23.