A Questionable Taking in Milwaukee:

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an article describing what seems like a classic example of the use of eminent domain to take private property for the purpose of giving it to politically influential interests (HT: VC reader Rob Driscoll]:

Employing a rarely used provision of city code, Milwaukee officials are poised to take two commercial lots from one owner and then sell them to another developer who has made campaign contributions to a key alderman.

If the land acquisition goes through, it will dash the dreams of Rafael Cetina, whose family bought the land in 2002 with visions of building a restaurant and club that would serve spicy Mayan flavors paying tribute to his heritage on the Yucatan Peninsula….

The family that owns and operates Pete’s Fruit Market would benefit from the deal. They made $2,000 in campaign contributions last year to Ald. Jim Witkowiak, who has played a major role in the city’s plans to take the land from Cetina.

Witkowiak says he has known the market’s owner since he first began selling fruit, and helped him acquire a permit. But he said that has not compromised his judgment.

“I definitely want to see the area redeveloped in a positive way,” he said.

On Tuesday, the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, chaired by Witkowiak, voted to approve the land acquisition. The ultimate decision will rest with the Common Council.

The Cetinas bought the first parcel in 2002 and spent $200,000 on everything from steel framing to lighting fixtures to eventually build the restaurant and club. He is now weeks away from losing the land to the city.

Two weeks ago, the city’s redevelopment authority deemed the vacant land blighted and voted to use eminent domain to buy the property. Cetina said he has gotten a raw deal and is losing his land because the city doesn’t want a nightclub there….

Milwaukee aldermen exert great influence over licensing decisions in their districts through a well-established system known as aldermanic privilege. Aldermen typically defer to the wishes of the local council member on such matters, giving the local official unofficial veto power…

Wisconsin is one of many states that has passed post-Kelo reform laws that purport to constrain these sorts of abuses, but actually provide little or no real protection for property owners. I discuss Wisconsin’s statute on page 26 of this forthcoming article, which also covers many similar loopholes in other state’s laws. Like many of the other states, Wisconsin forbids the use of condemnation for “economic development,” but allows much the same kinds of takings to go on under the cover of alleviating “blight.” As is typical of many such statutes, Wisconsin’s new law defines “blight” so broadly that virtually any area can be declared blighted if the local government wants to take property located there. The city appears to be utilizing the “blight” loophole in this case, and they may well win in court on it.

I think it perfectly possible that Alderman Wytkowiak is sincere in his belief that he wasn’t influenced by the fact that the condemned property will be sold to an important campaign contributor of his. Unfortunately, however, many dubious condemnations occur in part because people are very good at persuading themselves that anything that advances their self-interest also benefits the public. Such factors were a big part of the story behind the Kelo takings as well.

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