BAY CITY -- Two Wisconsin legislators held a press conference Wednesday morning in Bay City on the property of a man who’s afraid he’ll lose his piece of paradise to the village through eminent domain.
Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) rolled out an initiative called the “Homeowners’ Bill of Rights,” a call for reform that protects and defends homeowners from the “creep of overbearing government at all levels.”
They chose to hold the press conference on David Meixner’s property, who is in the midst of a legal battle with the village of Bay City over a proposed nature trail that would cut his roughly 4-acre spread along an inlet of the Mississippi River in three parcels.
In April, village board officials approved a measure to develop a 1.1-mile walking trail along the Mississippi River from the village campground, through land owned by Meixner, a nature photographer, and onto a peninsula stretching out into the river that is unclaimed by any private or government authority.
The village contends it’s acting in the public’s interest by developing the trail and that it has history and the law on its side.
Bay City officials also claim the trail idea was part of their comprehensive plan in 2009. In the plan, obtained by the Herald from village clerk Shawnie King, under Chapter 6:16 it states: “Hortenbach Park has a parking lot and a larger ball diamond. Eventually, a walking trail will connect the Bay City Campground with Hortenbach Park.” Nothing is mentioned about connecting a trail to the unclaimed peninsula.
Meixner gave legislators, media and guests a tour of his property, pausing near an artesian well to show the path which the village would like to follow down a driveway (the village says it’s a village street) to the peninsula.
He told of the compromise offer he made to the village, which the board turned down. Bay City Village President Jim Turvaville submitted a statement to the Herald June 2 on his reasons why the village is pursuing the nature trail plan.
Meixner questions why the village didn't buy the property from former owner Tom Tyler when it was up for sale. It was for sale for more than a year before Meixner bought it.
Jarchow said there are many instances of property being taken in eminent domain cases, citing examples in Oak Creek and Madison.
“One of the issues we have here in Wisconsin is affordable housing and here we’re using eminent domain to take properties?” Jarchow said before the cameras rolled. “That’s what has really gotten our attention as it’s been happening all across the state. Using eminent domain is pretty heavy-handed in my view. There has to be a pretty good reason.”
Tiffany, a native of the Elmwood area, said he learned of Meixner’s plight through his mother, who still lives near Elmwood. He is also related to Meixner.
Homeowner’s Bill of Rights
The Homeowner’s Bill of Rights consists of a list of goals to encourage families to become homeowners, as well as protect them from “overbearing government at all levels (that) has imperiled property rights and homeownership, a joint statement said.
Those goals include: controlling property taxes, increasing broadband access, providing energy security and affordability, eminent domain reform, regulatory takings reform, reducing regulatory barriers to home buyers, the right to fly the flag (banned by some home associations), privacy, grandfathering and smart growth reform.
The statement addressed eminent domain: “We are dismayed to hear stories of Wisconsinites being subjected to the taking of their homes or property by the all-powerful government in order to build amenities like parks and trails.
“Parks and trails are good for Wisconsin, but not at the expense of someone’s home. It is time to protect homes from government land-grabs.”
During the press conference, Jarchow outlined three items the Bill or Rights champions.
How do we get more young families buying homes? To make them more affordable by reducing regulatory burdens associated with homeownership.
Piece of mind and value in owning a home.
Making sure property is protected from being taken.
“In our technological age, privacy is so important,” Jarchow said. “We want to make sure the 4th Amendment means something...This package is the first step in education, building support and early next session introducing a package of bills to help reform situations like this.”Direct legislation Meixner’s attorney, William J. Mavity, said a petition for an ordinance under the direct legislation statute was submitted to the Bay City Villlage Board recently, asking it to put the nature trail project to a public vote.
The statute provides a procedure by which voters may compel a village board to pass a proposed ordinance or resolution or put the proposed ordinance or resolution before the public for a popular vote.
“If a project has a recreational objective, before construction, it must be submitted to the electorate,” Mavity said.
The petition collected 30-some signatures, Mavity said, more than enough for the number of signatures required (which is 15 percent of the votes cast for governor at the last general election in a city or village). Mavity said the question would be on the next general election ballot in November.
As for what’s next, Meixner said he assumes the village will have the land they want appraised, then make him an offer. The matter would then head to court, he said.
Tiffany applauded Meixner for taking a stand.
“I have a lot of respect for Dave that he’s putting principle first,” Tiffany said. “A lot of people just give up in these situations...That happens far too often. That’s part of the reason why we’re rolling out this package and specifically talking about regulatory reform and eminent domain reform.”
Jarchow said this case could set a precedent in making people wary to let others onto their land for hunting, etc.
“I tried to talk to people as they came and tried to give permission where I could,” Meixner said. “Especially to kids and older people fishing. But since this eminent domain process, I’ve shut everything down.”