Editor's note: This story is part of a series recapping the top stories of 2017. Read the other top stories here.
It's been a long fight for Bay City resident David Meixner, and he is tired. But he refuses to give up in the battle to save what he says is his land from eminent domain proceedings.
Meixner and his attorney, Bill Mavity, feel the village no longer has a leg to stand on in its pursuit of acquiring Meixner's land to develop a 1.1-mile walking trail along an inlet of the Mississippi River, along the northern shores of Lake Pepin, through Meixner's land and onto a peninsula. In April 2015, village board officials voted 3-2 to develop the walking trail.
On Sept. 21, 2017, Gov. Scott Walker signed the 2017-2018 state budget bill into law as Act 59.
According to a summary of state budget items written by Assistant Director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Curt Witynski, the budget bill contains a policy item that limits municipal powers.
"It prohibits local governments from using eminent domain to acquire land for bike and pedestrian paths ... " Witynski wrote.
Wisconsin Statute sec. 32.015 "prohibits municipalities from acquiring property by condemnation to establish or extend a recreational trail; a bicycle way, a bicycle lane, or a pedestrian way."
As far as Meixner and Mavity are concerned, this law ends the village's claims on Meixner's land, though they have yet to hear from the village board or its attorneys on the matter. Mavity said he sent a letter to village attorney Robert Loberg and eminent domain attorney Ryan Simatic (hired by the village in the matter) and did not hear back. As recently as Oct. 9, Simatic had served a second appraisal order on Meixner. In eminent domain proceedings, an appraisal is done prior to a jurisdictional offer, a written notice given by the acquiring authority to the property owner to inform the recipient of the proposed public use, what property is being acquired, and the amount of compensation to be paid.
"It's pretty clear to me they were trying to build a trail and now they can't," Mavity said in late November. "Whatever they're doing now is unlawful."
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The year 2017 saw much action in the Bay City small town politics saga, outside of the tug-of-war between Meixner and the village board.
Meixner and his brother, Steve Meixner, ran in the April 2017 election for two village trustee seats, while Meixner supporter Kent Carlson attempted to oust village president James Turvaville from his seat.
In a bizarre election drama twist, the three men filed complaints with the Wisconsin Elections Commission after learning they would not be on the April 4 ballot. The three challengers failed to file the required paperwork by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, as state law dictates; they said Village Clerk Shawnie King failed to provide it to them.
In response to complaints filed by the three men Feb. 10, the Wisconsin Elections Commission ruled March 16 against placing them on the ballot, after which they launched a write-in campaign. However, the three challengers lost to incumbents by a wide margin.
Then in May, in moving forward with plans to the proposed walking trail, village employees were ordered to extend Market Street to the edge of Sorensen Pond.
Village Board President Jim Turvaville said he made the decision to extend the street that day and that it wasn't a construction project, but rather street maintenance, since the street was already there, but just wasn't developed.
"I thought it was about time to get it cleaned up," he said.
As a result, the crew had to knock down two, double door gates held up by wooden poles. Meixner had erected the gate after buying the property, to keep trespassers from going on what he says is actually his land, not the village's.
The crew graded the road, placed gravel on it, put up stop and dead end signs at the end, and lined each side of the road with metal post linked by a twine-like substance to create a fence.
The Village Board said at the time it has no current plans on any further maintenance at this time on the extended Market Street.
On May 19, just a day after the construction, a special board meeting was called for May 22 at the Village Hall where the board went into closed session to discuss the eminent domain proceedings on the Meixner property, the ownership claims and status of the "peninsula" and dike surrounding "Sorensen Pond."
After more than an hour of closed session, the board passed the following motions:
• The board unanimously approved to offer a jurisdictional offer to David Meixner for $4,440 as proposed by Simatic.
• The board unanimously voted to instruct Simatic to make a jurisdictional offer, by the appropriate means, to the true owners to the Dike Road and Sorensen Peninsula for the amount that Simatic determines via extrapolation from the appraisal done for the David Meixner eminent domain proceedings, subject to the approval of the Turvaville.
And as if that wasn't enough, a civil suit filed last year against the village by the Meixners and Carlson saw a ruling July 12.
Pierce County Circuit Judge Joseph D. Boles ordered the plaintiffs' attorney to prepare a writ, directing King to prepare a certificate finding a petition circulated by the plaintiffs last year to be sufficient, in proper form and submitted immediately to the Village Board in compliance with state law.
"It is clear the petitioners fully complied with the requirements of Section 9.20, Wis. Stats. Therefore, the plaintiffs are entitled to a writ of mandamus," Boles wrote in his decision.
A writ of mandamus is an order to compel a judicial or government officer to perform a duty owed to the petitioner. In this case, the three men asked a judge to order the board to put the proposed nature trail project to a public vote.
State law provides a procedure by which voters may compel a village board to pass a proposed ordinance or resolution or put the proposed ordinance or resolution before the public for a popular vote. This is called direct legislation.
The ordinance states "Prior to the start of any construction of any village financed recreation project, including but not limited to a trail, or trail system for a park, requiring the acquisition of property not owned by the village and an expenditure of $50,000 or more in village funds...the village board shall submit to the electorate a binding referendum for approval of the project.
"Failure of the referendum shall preclude the village from proceeding with or permitting the construction of such a project, or any part thereof using village funds or revenues."
It remains to be seen if this project will appear on the April 2018 ballot, especially in light of the state law mentioned above concerning eminent domain.
David Meixner's name is still appearing on village board agendas in Bay City, in relation to an alleged flood plain violation.