Small Farmer Battles Big Government

By:  Alex Newman
06/04/2010
       

eminent domain After a barrage of bad press for city authorities, a 94-year-old Wisconsin farmer in Oak Creek finally won a long eminent domain battle with officials trying to seize his property for corporate interests. But despite the recent victory, big government is not done with Earl Giefer just yet.

“It ain’t over … They’re not going to give up,” Giefer told The Daily Reporter after the city gave up on its plan to seize his property by declaring it blighted. “They’re going to make things so miserable for me that I can’t stand it.”

Protests, national public-interest groups and wide-spread media attention forced the city council to back off its eminent domain scheme with a vote on June 1. But in the same resolution, the council promised to enforce all code and zoning regulations against the property.

The declaration has Giefer’s attorney concerned. “That is, as I see it, an announcement to go after Earl, and the question becomes are they treating him like everyone else or are they treating him differently?” lawyer Michael Schober asked The Daily Reporter. “That’s troublesome to me,” he said, noting that he remains worried the resolution could result in heavy-handed enforcement and that the city’s powers could be abused.

"The eminent domain [issue], that's over, but the rest of the aggravation they're going to give me, oh boy," Giefer told TMJ4, a local NBC affiliate. “I don’t need all this aggravation.” He has lived on the 25-acre plot all of his life, and he doesn‘t want any amount of money for it — it’s simply not for sale. “What good is money? It’s a worthless piece of paper with numbers on it. People go for it. They think it’s God to them, but it ain’t,” he said. The farm has been in the family since the Civil War. And despite his age, Giefer still tends to the land and the cattle every day. Eventually, the property is supposed to be handed down to his niece.

The city originally claimed the presence of Giefer’s farm was “inconsistent with development strategies.” A company called Wispark LLC — part of an “elite class of developers” and a subsidiary of Wisconsin Energy Corporation [NYSE: WEC] — purchased land nearby and plans to build a business park. But city officials claim Giefer’s farm might deter future development, so they’ve been on a mission to get rid of him.

But if the local authoritarians thought they were going to bully Giefer into submission with code enforcement citations and zoning rules, they had better come up with another strategy. A nearby contractor named Jason Fry got wind of the city’s vendetta and agreed to help Giefer resolve any issues with his property that the city might bring up — for free.

“We’re a full-service general contractor. That’s why I offered it to [Giefer‘s niece],” Fry told The Daily Reporter. “Anything she needed, free of charge.” Fry’s own property is facing $18,000 in fines over “zoning” violations, and he is sick of big government picking on people and telling them they “have to do something.” 

Fry is not alone in his desire to help Giefer in his fight for property rights. The comment sections of local news reports are filled with angry residents expressing their disgust with city officials. “First, the city has no right to take this property away. The Oak Creek city council is full of money hungry, greedy people that think with their wallets not their heads,” wrote one commenter at Oak Creek Now. “Second, this man has tried to get building permits within the last year to build a new house however the slimy Oak Creek city council wont pass the permits for him.” Countless residents echoed the displeasure.

The county Libertarian Party got involved too, even helping organize a protest against city officials. “If we lose our right to private property, we have no rights at all, really," county Chairman Brad Sponholz told Oak Creek Now. "I've talked to a hundred people and not one thinks this is a good thing. People are fired up."  

Nationally, the non-profit Institute for Justice’s “Castle Coalition” also joined the battle, urging citizens to attend a rally against the eminent domain abuse. “Giefer’s neighbors and community are standing behind him in this fight to keep what is rightfully his,” the organization said on its blog, CastleWatch. “The fight for the Giefer farm is the front line of the eminent domain battle in Wisconsin.” A staff attorney for the group also told reporters that they may seek legislative action in the state to prevent similar abuses in the future.

The attention this case has received may allow Giefer to live out the remainder of his life in peace, with his property rights intact. But while city officials may have been embarrassed into dropping the eminent domain process, and other local governments may be similarly deterred after seeing what happened in Oak Creek — there is still a big problem that must be resolved.

In 2005, the Supreme Court trampled on the Constitution, the English language, and the rights of all Americans when it decided in Kelo v. City of New London that governments could seize private property to further “economic development.” This wrong must be rectified by Congress because as long as it stands, no person’s right to property ownership is safe. Hopefully Giefer’s plight can put the issue back in the spotlight so it can be solved once and for all.   

Alex NewmanAlex Newman is an American freelance writer and the president of Liberty Sentinel Media, Inc., a small media consulting firm. He is currently living in Sweden and has spent most of his life in Latin America, Europe and Africa. He has a degree in foreign languages and speaks Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Italian and a little Swedish and Afrikaans. In addition, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Florida, with emphasis on economics and international relations.

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