Outagamie County Flip Flops on Eminent Domain Decision

August 3, 2016

Controversy is swirling in the Appleton, Wisconsin area after Outagamie County voted in favor of using eminent domain to acquire property for a new Sheriff’s facility. Outagamie County attempted to purchase the property, but the property owner accepted a rival offer from J.F. Ahern Co. Fire Protection.  After losing out on the bid to purchase the property, the Outagamie County Board voted 17-11 to exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire the property. The Board cited the significant cost savings to County taxpayers associated with the property as opposed to other competing sites.

But County Executive Tom Nelson vetoed the decision several days later on July 25, 2016 after facing immediate and harsh criticism against the decision.  Nelson is also running for a congressional seat being vacated by Reid Ribble. The County’s own attorney stated that eminent domain is “a governmental power that shouldn’t be taken lightly” and that the County has never used eminent domain to acquire property other than for transportation needs in his 22 years at the County.  County Supervisor Cathy Spears was also critical of the vote because it made the County appear to rely on its powers of eminent domain just because it lost out on the property to a better bid.

While some believe that Outagamie County’s initial decision was a classic example of government overreach, the County was likely acting within its eminent domain powers to acquire the property.  Wisconsin law grants governmental entities broad powers to acquire property for a “public purpose” and the acquisition of property to construct a Sheriff’s facility likely falls within that definition. Outagamie County’s reversal of course, however, highlights the political complexities involved in deciding to exercise the power of eminent domain.  At the end of the day, the large public outcry and the potential political consequences to the County Executive were enough to force the County to backtrack on its controversial decision.