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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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New rules for condemnation
Might no longer makes right; now it takes 'blight'

A new state law could jeopardize a proposed $20 million redevelopment of Todd Drive. The law, signed last week by Gov. Jim Doyle, bars municipalities from condemning property and giving it to private developers, unless the property is deemed blighted.

"I must admit this legislation does throw a tremendous wild card in the process," says Brad Hutter, president of Mortenson Investment Group, which wants to build a four-story office and retail complex on Todd Drive. "Suddenly, all the rules got changed."

Last month, Madison's Community Development Authority moved to condemn three Todd Drive parcels, unless the owners negotiated an acceptable sale price with Mortenson. But since two of the parcels, Open Pantry and Selective Video, were never declared blighted, the new law prevents Madison from taking the land and giving it to Mortenson.

"This is an example of why this is bad legislation," says CDA chair Stuart Levitan, noting that Mortenson's development would bring in hundreds of new jobs and expand the city's tax base. "This project enjoys unanimous neighborhood support."

The new law was passed in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that lets governments take land in blighted areas for private development. But municipalities will now have a harder time trying to redevelop troubled neighborhoods. "I'm afraid the state took away a critical tool," he says.

A day after Doyle signed the bill into law, Hutter says he received an overnight letter from one of the Todd Drive property owners - he won't say which one - warning him the sale price of the building would now increase.

But the new law won't help Duane Steinhauer keep his Bridge Club building on Todd Drive. Last year, the property was declared blighted by the city, which cited a problem with its roof. Steinhauer says the roof doesn't leak, and that no inspectors ever toured the building's interior. He adds that most of the neighborhood's "blight," like cracked concrete or warped shingles, is easily repaired. "By the standards they use, we could go to the mayor's neighborhood and find it was blighted," he says.

Steinhauer has offered to sell his building to Mortenson for more than half a million dollars - more than three times its assessed value - arguing that's comparable to what the developer has paid for other parcels in the neighborhood. But if Steinhauer and Mortenson can't agree on a price, the city could take the land and determine the amount of compensation.

"It's not like they're coming in to build a hospital or a library or a fire station," says Steinhauer. "The city is taking the building from us and giving it to somebody because they have more money. We're in front of a huge bulldozer that's going to run us over soon."

Behind the scenes

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's office lobbied Gov. Doyle to veto the condemnation bill - or at least delay signing it until the Todd Drive properties were secured. In a March 22 e-mail to city officials, including real estate manager Don Marx, mayoral spokesman George Twigg stated that Doyle's office offered to hold off on signing.

"I said that would be helpful inasmuch as it would preserve some leverage in our ongoing negotiations on Todd Drive.... Don, do you know if the property owners are aware of this legislation to any degree?" (To read staff e-mails on this issue, go to Document Feed on

Developer Brad Hutter wrote an e-mail in reply saying Doyle was willing to ask the Legislature to amend the law "to allow these very significant and 'far down the road' projects to go forward." City staffers also suggested that municipalities around the state could highlight how the bill would adversely affect redevelopment projects.

But Doyle signed the bill last week, citing veto-proof majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly.

Being neighborly

Town of Verona residents are concerned about a proposed Super Target in nearby Fitchburg. The 174,000-square-foot store would include a full grocery store and nearly 800 parking stalls. The store would be built in an old quarry off Nesbitt Road, next door to residential neighborhoods in Verona and Madison. The area is zoned commercial, and few Fitchburg residents live nearby.

"It's perfect for Fitchburg because they don't have to deal with any of the consequences," says Andrea Vogel, a Verona resident. "They don't have to live with the pollution or the traffic."

Vogel and other residents say the new development will dramatically increase traffic on Fitchrona Road, which is only two lanes. And they're especially worried about stormwater runoff from the development, noting that Fitchburg's existing retention pond for the quarry regularly fails.

"It has consistently flooded Goose Lake and killed the lake," says Steve Sheets, another Verona resident. He says because of the flooding, lake plants and other wildlife can't survive. "The new development is a huge area, and a lot of water will pour off the parking lot and rooftops into the retention pond and then into Goose Lake."

Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder says the city is aware of the retention pond's failure and has commissioned an engineering study to fix it. "No matter what, we'll deal with it," he says.

Clauder has also met with Verona residents to discuss their concerns. "We're trying to be neighborly," he says, adding, "I've heard from people that they would like a nice retail store in our city. We don't have that now."

And, he says, building the Super Target in the old quarry actually preserves open space: "This is not farmland that people would get sick over putting a big-box store on."

King of spin

Madison's proposed sick leave ordinance has suffered some setbacks. But the ordinance's author, Ald. Austin King, sees a silver lining in every defeat.

After the Board of Health for Madison and Dane County refused to take a position on the plan, King issued a press release entitled "Board of Health gives paid sick leave thumbs up."

He says he didn't mean the board had endorsed his specific proposal, just the idea of paid sick leave. "It helps bolster our cause," he insists. "They said paid sick leave is a public health issue."

And after the Economic Development Commission rejected sick leave 7-3, King told the Wisconsin State Journal, "The fact that it was this close is a very good sign for what's going to happen at the council."

King defends this statement, noting that in 2004 only one EDC member voted in favor of an increase in the city's minimum wage. "We picked up commissioners," he says.

According to King, the sick leave ordinance currently has seven co-sponsors (it originally had nine), and he expects four or five more alders to vote for it. "I'm sick of everyone declaring it dead," he says.

Including Isthmus. King is mad about last week's cover story ("Fightin' Jen!"), which said the proposed sick leave plan was, by most accounts, a political nonstarter. "That's a false statement to make," he says. "It was the worst single paragraph I've ever read in Isthmus over the years."

Well, until now. "I feel like this story is out of bounds," he says, regarding this column item. "It seems like a silly piece of political analysis to do."

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