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home : opinions : opinions August 23, 2017

8/11/2017 7:29:00 AM
Public beware: Sorensen wants to control your property

It's amazing the lengths to which big-government politicians will go to keep control of people's lives.

It's particularly amazing in Wisconsin, where government bureaucrats and their allies have worked together for decades to strip Wisconsin residents - especially those who live in northern Wisconsin - of their property rights.

As we report in today's edition, one Oneida County supervisor, Jack Sorensen, is attempting to launch yet another attack on property rights.

Here's what's getting under Sorensen's skin. In 2015, the elected state Legislature prohibited counties from imposing shoreland regulations stricter than statewide minimums. Environmental activists have for years used clueless county boards as tools in their anti-property rights tool kit, goading them into enacting absurd and arguably unconstitutional regulations, and lawmakers moved to take care of it, just as they stopped unelected Madison bureaucrats on the state level.

The statewide minimum in question allows for 100-foot riparian frontage lots, and that wasn't allowed on some Oneida County lakes. You know, those small lots weren't good for water quality.

Now those who want to require larger lots, such as 200 feet of frontage, talk about water quality, but in reality what they really are all about is creating environmentally correct refuges for the wealthy, pricing the riffraff, otherwise known as most of us, off the lakes.

Ever wonder why so many DNR bureaucrats end up living on lakes when most people can't afford to?

Anyway, the environmentalists and their allies are constantly dreaming up schemes that end run the law, and Sorensen's plan is no different. Since the law won't let the county impose larger minimum widths on shoreland properties than the state allows, he wants to impose the 200-foot minimum on all similarly zoned properties in the county.

He would do so through the county's subdivision ordinance. The trick is, the only way a shoreland property can be regulated more restrictively than the state shoreland minimum is if the regulation is embodied in another general zoning ordinance and it applies to all similarly zoned properties, shoreland or not. Hence, the subdivision ordinance.

The logic is, if the larger minimum width applies to all properties, off water and on water, it doesn't run afoul of the state's prohibition against regulating shoreland properties more stringently just because they are shoreland properties.

That's right, in order to get his way on the lakes, Sorensen wants to punish all of us.

There's a couple of problems with Sorensen's approach.

The first is, it's illegal and, after costly litigation, will be tossed by the courts. It's illegal because the proposal's reason for existence is to overturn the Legislature's intent of allowing 100-foot shoreland lots.

This is exactly why the DNR offered the following interpretation of Act 55, the law in question: "Counties may not circumvent s. 59.692(1d) and (5) by enacting or enforcing, through a zoning ordinance enacted under a different statutory authority, more restrictive minimum lot size than that set forth in ch. NR 115 if the provision specifically applies ONLY because the land at issue is located within a shoreland AND it applies because the lands lie in shorelands."

The DNR's capitalized words are critical. The county cannot impose a regulation that applies only because the land at issue is located within a shoreland - Sorensen's countywide plan passes muster there - but it also cannot impose a regulation "because (emphasis added) the lands lie in shorelands."

And there's no question that the very reason for the proposal is to target lands because they lie in shorelands. In the discussion of this plan, not one word has been uttered about why a 200-foot minimum width is necessary outside the shoreland zone; the entire discussion has centered on why such a minimum is needed within the shoreland zone.

To say it another way, the only intent of this regulation is to restrict lands that are in the shoreland zone and if it is necessary to restrict other lands to do so, that's just collateral damage.

It is a brazen attempt to circumvent the law, and anyone doubting that should just listen to the tapes of the discussions at those zoning meetings. They talk repeatedly and exclusively about the need to regulate riparian frontage width and that the only way to evade the state shoreland minimum is to apply it everywhere, though there is no regulatory reason for that extension.

If enacted, it amounts to a government taking. It should and will be challenged, and we think the courts will toss it.

Second, Sorensen, while wanting to block middle-class access to lake ownership, also seeks to destroy the property values of those already with properties that could be subdivided into 100-foot lots, many of whom have long planned to do so for their retirement.

Sorensen claims if a 100-foot property is worth $100,000, then a 200-foot property on that same lake will be worth $200,000, but others on the zoning committee questioned that assertion and it just isn't a rational claim. It might be worth that, and in some cases it will be, but there are many factors that affect the value of property.

On the one hand, the larger lot might be more desirable for those who want seclusion and privacy, but a builder might pay more for a property that can be subdivided, as would many other prospective buyers.

In any event, we doubt that one can simply say with absolute certainty, as Sorensen did, that there will be no injury to the property owner, that doubling a property's size doubles its value. That's especially true off water, a point Sorensen conveniently forgot to bring up, and, remember, he wants to impose the larger minimum width on all of us.

Finally, property owners in this county should worry and ask: If Sorensen gets his way, what's next?

What regulation will he next dream up for the shoreland zone that will have to be imposed on everybody to make it happen on the water? More stringent impervious surface limitations, perhaps? Lighting regulations? Building requirements?

Once you open the door to government regulation, the door stays open. Bureaucrats, environmentalists, and their allies on county boards could sit around all day thinking up shoreland regulations they could impose simply by slapping the regulations on everybody, thereby completely defeating the purpose of Act 55.

That is not what the Legislature intended; quite the opposite, in fact.

Which brings us to a larger point: Don't be fooled by all this talk of local control. The lawmakers who passed Act 55 were elected officials who were elected to do exactly what they did - to begin to fix the decades of harm created by unelected bureaucrats. For years the DNR trampled on the property rights of good citizens, and Sen. Tom Tiffany and others were elected to take power back from that run-away bureaucracy.

But Jack Sorensen is an elected official, too, one might rightly reply. True enough, to which we would answer, take a look at his district and compare the number of votes he got in his last election and the votes that Tiffany got in that district in his last election and see where local control, meaning local policy sentiment, really lies.

If Sorensen is sincere about local control, we ask if he would be willing to put his drastic proposal to a popular vote in a county referendum? In fact, would he support a legislative move to make all shoreland zoning completely voluntary, town by town and county by county?

That would be true local control. Those who support local control when it means becoming more restrictive often lose their appetite for it when it means becoming less restrictive. So we'd like to know.

In the meantime, property owners beware. The old days of attacking property rights are quickly becoming the new days again; once again, a government attempt to take and control your property is underway.

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