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City threatens to take land from 94-year-old farmer

Eminent domain may be used to force sale

May 25, 2010

Oak Creek — Earl Giefer has lived all of his 94 years on his farm at 10523 S. Howell Ave.

The 25-acre property, south of Oakwood Road across from First Baptist Church, has been in the family for even longer than that. Relatives believe the family purchased the land in the mid- to late-1800s, possibly around the time of the Civil War.

During that period and for the decades that followed, the farm was just one of many in a bustling agricultural area. Now, Giefer's farm is one of the last remaining in the city.

But its demise could be soon approaching at the hands of eminent domain.

The city's Community Development Authority next week will consider a measure to declare Giefer's farm a "blighted" property, which could give the city legal authority to use eminent domain and purchase the property at fair-market value.

Like Giefer and his family's history on the farm, it was a long time coming to this point for Oak Creek, as well.

Key development area

In the mid-1980s, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District sought to build a sludge landfill on 280 acres near Giefer's property. Oak Creek officials wanted that land to remain on the tax rolls, and the school district wanted part of it for a new high school.

Years of litigation later, Oak Creek won out, and last year Wispark LLC announced it would pay more than $5 million for 169 acres to develop a business park.

The Oak Creek-Franklin School District purchased 50 acres for a future school site and the rest will be preserved as wooded green space.

But what was a positive end result for city, school district and developer has become the beginning of trouble for the Giefer family.

Giefer's 25 acres are sandwiched between roughly 20 acres of Wispark-owned land to the north and about 150 acres to the south, said his niece, Edna Adams. His property was assessed at $55,700 this year, according to online city records.

Developers and city officials say Giefer's farm is in poor condition and qualifies as blight. They fear the type of high-quality, corporate-headquarters-types of businesses Oak Creek wants to attract will be reluctant to relocate next to a run-down property.

Giefer no longer lives there following a February 2008 house fire, but the 94-year-old still tends to the land and beef cattle, Adams said.

Not for sale by choice

Adams says the family has no plans to sell the property. Her 64-year-old sister, like her uncle, lived there for nearly her entire life, and the plan has always been for Earl to hand the farm down to her.

Her sister has never had an outside job and even lost her arm in a farming accident. "She gave up her right arm for the farm," Adams said.

"The land is not for sale. It has never been for sale," she said.

"My uncle is 94 years old. Even if he gets a big payment for it, he's 94 years old. What good does the money do him? He doesn't want the money. He wants to keep the land. My sister wants to keep the land, and he wants to give it to her."

Taxpayer-first philosophy

City Attorney Lawrence Haskin said he sympathizes with Giefer and his family. The city is doing everything it can to work with Giefer and his attorneys, he said, to accommodate their concerns.

But city officials reason that developing the land could greatly increase Oak Creek's property tax base and, thus, keep residents' taxes low.

At a time when municipal governments are getting squeezed by the economic recession, escalating health care costs and mediation arbitration laws, cities everywhere are struggling to keep taxes down, Haskin said.

"I feel badly for him that he's been placed in this situation," he said. "We're trying to handle this with as much delicacy as possible …

"But the Common Council … represents everybody in this community. We're doing everything we can to hold the line on taxes, and one way to do that is through economic development."

The use of eminent domain

The council would have the final say on eminent domain, and not everyone agrees on its use.

Ken Gehl, the alderman representing the farm, said eminent domain is the wrong way to proceed and would rather see a fair, negotiated transaction between the city and Giefer.

"Eminent domain hits a raw nerve with people and I would fall in that camp," Gehl said.

The Milwaukee County affiliate of the Libertarian Party caught wind of Giefer's situation and is planning a rally outside Oak Creek City Hall before the Community Development Authority meeting at 7 p.m. June 2.

Adams said she hopes for a high turnout and that residents can tell government leaders to look at their interests, rather than "big business."

"If we lose our right to private property, we have no rights at all, really," county Libertarian Party Chairman Brad Sponholz said. "I've talked to a hundred people and not one thinks this is a good thing. People are fired up."

THE NEXT STEP

WHAT: Community Development Authority meeting on eminent domain issue

WHEN: 7 p.m. June 2

WHERE: Oak Creek City Hall, 8640 S. Howell Ave.

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