After My Family’s 15 Year Battle, Property Rights in Wisconsin Have Been Restored

December 4, 2017

By Donna Murr
Special Guest Perspective

Did you know that if someone owns adjacent properties, government can merge them without the owner’s permission or consent?   Neither did I, until I experienced it for myself.  But thanks to Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany, a new bill was passed by the Wisconsin legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker so this will never happen to anyone in Wisconsin again.

My brothers and sister and I own the family cabin our parents built back in 1960, on the St. Croix River.  We also own the 1-acre, undeveloped lot next door which my parents bought in 1963.   Both parcels are part of a subdivision created in the late 1950s with over 60 residential lots.   Shortly after our parents passed away in 2002, my siblings and I decided it was time to sell the empty lot and use the proceeds to repair and remodel our 40-year old cabin.  We hired an architect and explored the various permits and variances necessary to complete the project.

That is when we got the shock of our lives when we learned the government had “effectively” merged our two properties into one parcel decades before.  The ordinance that St. Croix County officials referenced was enacted in the 1970’s, more than ten years after my parents purchased the two properties.

What do you mean, “effectively merged”, we asked?  In short, we were told we could not sell our empty lot unless we sold it together with our family cabin next door.   This made no sense and was an obvious violation of our property rights.  We had always received two, separate property tax statements, we have two separate property identification numbers and every plat map at the county shows two distinct lots.  Our cabin was assessed for over $530,000 and the empty lot was assessed for $400,000 as a buildable, residential lot.

We requested a variance from the ordinance, and were denied.  We then filed a lawsuit in District Court, and our case was thrown out on summary judgment.  We appealed to the Wisconsin Appellate Court and lost.  We asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review our case, and they passed.  But that didn’t stop us from fighting on.

By this time, the County had re-assessed our property as one parcel, and the total value dropped by nearly $500,000.  We felt so strongly that our property rights had been violated, and we were not ready to back down.  Thanks to the power of an internet search, we found the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit legal foundation that help people fight government overreach.  They listened to our story, immediately recognized the injustice of our situation, embraced our case, and took us to the United States Supreme Court – free of charge.

Then came the disappointing 5-3 decision in June 2017, and we lost again.  But our story did not end there.  Unknown to my family or me, Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany were waiting in the wings, and immediately sprang into action.  They introduced legislation known as the “Homeowners Bill of Rights” in July and it was passed by the Assembly and Senate in November.   Among other things, the bill includes measures which protect owners of separate, neighboring lots from having them forcibly combined.  Also, if you buy land with the right to build, you keep that right even if lot-size rules later change.

Wisconsin is full of families like ours who own cabins and lakefront properties, and thousands of people will benefit from these changes.  But the legislation has special meaning for my family. It is the culmination of our long fight for justice and to defend my late parents’ dream of having a family cabin and gathering place for our family to enjoy for generations.

My parents raised us to respect the Constitution, and stand up for what’s right.  We kept our fight going for 15 years because we all knew that mom and dad would have done the same thing.  But we also had a lot of help along the way, and many times from complete strangers.  From the outstanding legal counsel at Pacific Legal Foundation to the Wisconsin Realtors Association to our new heroes in the state legislation, Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany.

Now that Gov. Walker signed the bill on November 27th, our 15-year battle has come to a glorious end.   We are proud of our tenaciousness because it was the right thing to do for our family and for all property owners in Wisconsin.  We can only hope that other states will follow our lead and pass similar measures to strengthen their residents’ property rights as well.

Donna Murr is a resident of Eau Claire

  • Somersetsmile

    Congrats to you and our Representatives in the Wisconsin Legislature.

  • Richard Bienz

    Congratulation Donna and Team way stay focused maintain
    perseverance of a long period of time, what you have accomplished will
    hopefully pave the way for a lot of us in the near future, Very Proud of what you
    have done.

    Personally, I am in the infant stages of my own fight
    with the City of Brookfield in Waukesha county. 1964 my parents bought
    (1).58-acre parcel to build a house on, within one week, he decided to buy a
    second parcel of the same size directly to the north of the 1st parcel
    allowing enough room for my brother and myself to play on as we grew up. as a
    result, each property had its own survey and its own tax key. As it was my
    father’s intent to sell the second acquire after my brother and I got older and
    moved on with our lives. All of which sounds good on paper.

    May father, passed away in 2003, I purchased the property
    from the Estate and my brother in 2004. I proceeded to remodel the property
    over the course of two years. IN July of this Summer, I spoke with the City of
    Brookfield planning commission regarding a potential land split. The initial
    planner logged over satellite images of the property an old Property Survey
    that I had marked up and the legal description of the lot. He saw it looks feasible,
    but it would require a new land survey in order to be sure.

    So, I had the land surveyed, put together a preliminary
    proposal giving dimensions, setbacks, proposed offsets etc.

    After two weeks I received a marked up set of plans
    back from the City Planner and City engineer denying my proposal of a split to
    my property because a “proposed Right of way 30′ wide x 141.79′ long” Cuts
    directly through the north end of my parcel that had never showed up on
    and deeds, legal description or any other documentation. When questioned where
    and how this came into effect, I was told, it was never there but when you
    create the now lot, it has to change to comply to current standards which in
    turn make it a substandard non-buildable lot. It was even suggested to me by
    one of the city Planner, that if I want to possibly get my lot to become
    compliant, I should contact my neighbor to the west and buy x 5” x
    341′ ‘ strip of land that would run adjacent to my land and that would be
    enough land to compensate for the Cities “Proposed Right of Way”
    They are imposing on my lot. I was dumbfounded with what I was being told
    so thoughtfully thanked them, backed away and rethought out my options because
    none of this made any senses.

    I was referred to a “Very Large” Commercial
    Developer in Brookfield, they review the case and decided to try and help
    me. together, we have collected a tremendous amount of data going back to
    1938 all showing Land plats, land splits, proposed subdivisions tax keys
    etc. I have Surveys show both parcels being separate, I have
    separate tax bills with individual tax keys from 1964 to 1989 and then somehow,
    mysteriously in 1990 the two tax keys combine.

    The Gentleman from the Large Commercial Developer that I
    was working with, arranged a meeting with the City of Brookfield Planning
    commission and City Engineer where he to pretty much got door slammed in his
    face Saying that if I divide this lot, they are going to place a 30′
    wide Proposed Right of way on it and that will render the lot too small (less
    that 25,000 sq.ft ) to be a buildable lot. They also stated the only way to
    make the lot back to an acceptable size is to purchase the 5′ wide x 431’ long
    strip of land from my westerly neighbor. Who we had approached and has no interest
    in selling me this strip of land.

    Furthermore, the large Commercial Developer that I am
    working with does so much work in Brookfield, they do not want to legally
    represent me with and litigation or legal cases. Which I can understand.
    He has referred me to a Law Firm in Brookfield, who I met with for one hour,
    She then review all of our documentation for 2 hour. Sent me a bill for
    $1100+ (which I promptly paid). And I have not heard back from her since I
    saw the article about Gov Walker signing Assembly Bill 479 into effect on
    11/27/17. I sent her link, as well as several emails asking for and advice
    on our next step and I still am getting no response.

    It appears that this Assembly Bill 479 is tailor made for
    my situation, but I can’t find anyone to help me!!! It seems that I have come
    so far and I can see a light at the end of the tunnel but I can’t get there. Does
    anyone know somebody who would guide me through this proceed, ie a real Estate
    Lawyer Versed in such practice? Any Help would truly be appreciated.

    Thank you and congratulations on your success which may
    have paved the road for me. Sometimes it feels like you need to stay the course
    and do what you gut is telling you is right.

    Regards,

    Rick B

    Brookfield, WI