A twofold question faced the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Wednesday: Should the state of Wisconsin reform its eminent domain laws, and what role should the county board take in influencing public policy?
A lively discussion, which included several citizens addressing the board, ended with a 20-5 vote in favor of a resolution calling for changes in state laws to prohibit private companies from using eminent domain to take property.
“My rights were taken away by a fat company,” said town of Wyocena farmer Kevin Stoddard, who said he has an 80-foot easement on his farm for a petroleum pipeline.
The company, Enbridge, has hinted at the possibility of seeking a bigger easement, Stoddard said — one that could go through his house.
“If a huge company told you they wanted to knock down your house, what would you do?” Stoddard asked.
Supervisor Kevin Kessler of the town of West Point, chairman of the County Board’s Planning and Zoning Committee, said he had reached out to Enbridge officials to seek their input on the resolution, but had not heard back from them.
No one at the County Board meeting asked to speak on behalf of Enbridge.
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution allows the government to take private property for public purposes if “just compensation” is paid to the property’s owners.
Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville said he favored the resolution — similar to resolutions approved in at least six other Wisconsin counties — because he has a small farm in the town of Marcellon, and he’d hate the thought of a private entity taking any of his property for a purpose that is not clearly “public,” such as a road or a school.
Supervisor Matt Rohrbeck of Portage said the state’s law, as it is written, is in line with a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that the definition of “public good” could include a private company taking private property if it can be shown to result in economic growth.
Rohrbeck said pipelines may be the least objectionable method to convey the large amounts of petroleum the American public demands. They can handle more volume, and experience fewer accidents or spills, than transporting petroleum by train or truck, he said.
“If you don’t like pipelines, what is the alternative to pipelines?” he asked. “The American public relies on gasoline every day.”
Rather than passing the resolution as proposed, Rohrbeck said, government officials should sit down with all stakeholders, including property owners and pipeline companies, to find a solution that protects the property rights of landowners while conveying gas and oil safely.
Debra Brown, who farms near Portage, said the pipeline easement on her property has resulted in loss of soil fertility and compaction of the soil, which has reduced her farm’s productivity.
Ann Plata, who farms in the town of Hampden near Columbus, asked the County Board to “give our voice a little broader volume” by passing the resolution.
“I would argue there is no greater public good than when farmers are growing food for the nation,” she said.
Supervisor Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena said he believes the county board’s primary role is stewardship of taxpayers’ money, not suggesting state policy.
“We should not be a political action committee,” he said.
Even if the Legislature were to consider the resolution, Rashke said, the ultimate power over eminent domain lies in the federal government, not the state.
Supervisor Craig Robson of Portage said he agreed with Rashke that fiscal stewardship is the county board’s primary role, but “I also believe the supervisors’ function is to respond to the people and advocate good government.”
The county board often is asked to vote on resolutions stating a position on a public or legislative issue.
Wednesday’s meeting included unanimous passage, without discussion, of several other policy-related issues, including:
- Seeking oversight reforms from the state, and increased funding, for child protective services
- Supporting increased funding for child support collection
- Supporting increased compensation for defense lawyers appointed by the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office
On eminent domain, supervisor Adam Field of Portage said he felt caught in the middle.
On the one hand, he said he’s no fan of eminent domain — as evidenced by his votes, during Columbia County’s $46 million building project, against eminent domain proceedings to take two pieces of property for which the owners could not come to an agreement with the county.
On the other hand, Field said he thinks the resolution’s proposal to ban the use of eminent domain goes too far.
Not so, said Supervisor Susanna Bradley of the town of Caledonia. The resolution only calls for reforming state law to limit its use by private companies for purposes that are not truly public, and to ensure that landowners can negotiate for a fair price.
When proponents of the resolution spoke to the County Board’s Executive Committee, they said the resolution is not aimed at any one company, nor is it intended to be anti-pipeline. They said they merely want to ensure that landowners’ rights are protected.
The resolution includes provisions that it be sent to the Legislature, the governor, the Public Service Commission and the Wisconsin Counties Association.