Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation Monday that supporters said will lessen government overreach for landowners statewide, but St. Croix River stewards said will encourage more housing development and drive down property values along the protected river.
The legislation, known as the “Homeowners’ Bill of Rights,” emerged out of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that blocked a family from selling a small plot of riverfront land south of Hudson, Wis., to finance improvements on their adjacent cabin.
The Wisconsin Senate and Assembly passed the legislation earlier this month.
“The long arm of government overreach and property rights infringement has taken some of our citizens as victims,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. The courts, he said, “have not provided needed protections for property owners.”
The Supreme Court rejected, on a 5-3 vote, the Murr family’s argument that conservation rules unfairly stripped their land of its value. Justice Anthony Kennedy called the government’s action “a reasonable land-use regulation” meant to preserve the St. Croix River and surrounding land.
The Murrs, of Troy Township, and their attorneys had alleged overregulation of personal property, arguing that because government is allowed to view two contiguous parcels as a “parcel of the whole,” property owners are denied compensation for one of them.
Tiffany said the property rights law will provide “statutory clarification” to property disputes, conditional use permits and the reviewing of property tax assessments.
But Melanie Kleiss, an attorney and St. Croix River Association board member, said the new Wisconsin law could lead to a flurry of riverfront construction that would drive down property values and hurt the river’s appeal for the hundreds of thousands attracted to its beauty.
“When that development starts, it will become like any other river in the metro area and the economy will suffer,” Kleiss said. “Values will inch down because a highly developed river is not nearly as attractive and peaceful and nice to live on as a wild and scenic river.”
County condemns bill
The St. Croix is one of the original eight rivers placed into federal protection under the U.S. Wild and Scenic River Act. State agencies and local governments on either side of the river regulate water quality and scenic views, as required by federal law.
In a recent resolution, St. Croix County supervisors condemned the Wisconsin property rights legislation as encroaching on a zoning ordinance that governs overcrowding, bluffline development, soil erosion and pollution.
The ordinance also requires merging of substandard building lots — the law to which the Murrs objected — to prevent haphazard development, the supervisors said. The new state law waives that land-use restriction.
“It’s absolutely centralizing power in Madison,” Kleiss said of the property rights law.
Jim Burling, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the California property rights group that represented the Murrs at the Supreme Court, said that the legislation sponsored by Tiffany (and Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake) will stop government “from denying landowners their rights” simply because they happen to own two parcels next to each other.
“By enacting these new safeguards against government theft of private property, Wisconsin is setting an example for other states to follow,” said Burling, Pacific Legal’s vice president for litigation.
The new law will help the Murrs and other Wisconsin residents “who might fall victim to a similar scheme,” he said.
The dispute began in 2004 when the Murrs tried to sell the vacant lot to pay for improvements at their family cabin that sits on the plot next door.
Their father purchased the two 1.25-acre lots separately in the 1960s, and both parcels had been taxed separately. The lots were transferred to his children in the 1990s.
County officials blocked the sale, citing 1976 regulations that bar new shoreline construction to prevent overcrowding and pollution on the St. Croix. The Murrs sued Wisconsin and St. Croix County for payment of what the vacant property was worth — it was assessed at $400,000 — but the Supreme Court ruling denied the family any compensation.
Donna Murr recently said that her family hadn’t yet decided what to do with the adjacent land.
“It’s been 15 years and a lot has changed. We haven’t decided whether to put it on the market anytime soon but we’re thrilled to death that we have our rights back,” she said. The family has been a good steward of the river, she said, and has left a minimal footprint there, not even building a dock.
Scott Cox, St. Croix County’s civil attorney, said the new Wisconsin law will allow at least eight other owners of similar lots near the Murr property to develop their property if they desired.
“It clearly was an attempt to void the county’s regulations,” he said of Tiffany’s legislation. The county was “still analyzing the legislation” and hadn’t yet decided how to respond, he said.
Meanwhile, the executive director of the St. Croix River Association said the law loses sight of land and water protections intended to benefit the greater good, not just a few residents.
“It frustrates the heck out of me,” Deb Ryun said. “You can be sure it will open the door to potential new development in places that county and the city have determined they shouldn’t be.”