In Racine County, neatly maintained homes and dream houses are being designated ‘blighted’ to make way for Foxconn

2018-05-01T09:27:23+00:00 April 11th, 2018|

By Lawrence Tabak
Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki

On the evening of March 20 a full room of Racine County residents assembled to make and hear public statements before the board of the Community Development Authority of Mt. Pleasant, Wisconsin. One item was on the agenda: the board’s first step in the designation of some 3,000 acres of agricultural land, farm houses and scattered, neatly maintained single-family homes as “blighted.” It would be the final step for the local authorities — vital cogs in the Foxconn-booster leadership chain that runs from local Tea Party officials, to Governor Scott Walker, and all the way up to President Donald Trump — to fulfill the promise to Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn to obtain and then turn over the land for their proposed industrial complex. Some of the homeowners who had received eminent domain notifications back in October held property that came under the well-established protocols for roadway easements as rural roads would be expanded into four-lane or more highways to accommodate Foxconn. But many were well off these grids.

Speakers were reminded that they were limited to three minutes but had 15 days to submit their objections in writing.

“The Village is telling us our land is worthless, while at the same time you’re telling Foxconn it’s the best property in the world. I don’t know how any of you guys can sit here and do this.”

Joe Janacek, in his late 50s, sporting a graying mustache and a crew-neck sweater, looked uncomfortable as he walked to the podium carrying a single sheet of paper. “I’ve lived in my home for 28 years,” he read to the board. “I’m a tax-paying citizen and I deserve better than this, to just be kicked to the curb and thrown out of my residence.”

Connie Richards stood with her taller husband, as expressionless as the farming couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. “It will be a sad day when the wrecking ball demolishes the house and buildings we have put our hearts and soul into.”

Robby Jensen, his voice breaking with emotion, pointed at the board as he said, “The Village is telling us our land is worthless, while at the same time you’re telling Foxconn it’s the best property in the world. I don’t know how any of you guys can sit here and do this.”

Kim and James Mahoney had been in their dream home less than a year when notified it was going to be razed for the Foxconn development. They’re still waiting for an offer, even as the process to condemn their property as “blighted” is underway.

Most of the speakers were homeowners who were still holding out hope that they could keep their properties, or at least obtain better offers. Others were just frustrated that they had yet to receive offers despite months having passed since the village-sponsored auditors had completed their assessments. They spoke of their history in these homes, the care and expense they’d lavished on their properties. Many brought pictures. “We spent our life savings on this thing, and now we gotta move,” said Alfredo Ortiz, an 18-year resident. “It’s an insult,” he added, reflecting the general mood of the testimonies. It was extremely personal for these residents; having your carefully maintained residence, or in at least one case, recently built dream home, designated as blighted.

The one speaker from outside the area was Anthony Sanders, from the Minneapolis-based law firm Institute for Justice. His firm contains some of the leading eminent domain experts in the country. After reviewing the statutory backdrop Sanders looked directly at the CDA board and told them, “Make no mistake. If there is a legal challenge, you will lose. You will not be able to take these people’s homes.”

Sanders’s firm argued one of the most important eminent domain cases in history, Kelo v. New London, before the Supreme Court. This landmark 2005 case, decided 5-4, upheld the local Connecticut municipality’s right to condemn property for commercial development. In its wake, 42 states passed eminent domain legislation to clarify the process, mostly with the goal of protecting property owners from what many felt was government overreach, a prospect which disturbed people across the political spectrum. Institute for Justice is a pro bono firm, funded by donors and foundations and not the clients they represent.

Sanders explained how he came to be at the March 20 meeting in Mt. Pleasant. “We’ve been involved in some eminent domain cases in Wisconsin so Foxconn was on our radar. One of the property owners reached out to us as did a couple of attorneys representing homeowners. Based on our experience with Wisconsin law we knew the Village would have to do a blight designation.”

The main complication in condemning the entire, sprawling 4.5-square-mile area is how specific Wisconsin law is regarding blight. For instance, one of the qualifying criteria is a crime rate three times the rate of the surrounding community, a criteria which is nonsensical for the designated Foxconn property. Or the clause that seems to directly subvert the goal of giving the land to Foxconn, which reads: “Property that is not blighted property may not be acquired by condemnation by an entity authorized to condemn … if the condemnor intends to convey or lease the acquired property to a private entity.”

Later in conversation Sanders was blunt. “This is a textbook case of eminent domain abuse.” When he considered the local authority’s promise to Foxconn to have all the land in hand by August 1, 2018, Sanders said there were two possibilities: “Either they sold Foxconn a bill of goods or they’ve retained the financial resources to make some huge offers.” Offers, one is tempted to say, that homeowners can’t refuse.

“This is a textbook case of eminent domain abuse.”

Also testifying was Christy Hall, a criminal defense attorney who lives within the condemnation zone. She pilloried the local government for issuing her a building  permit and allowing the construction of a major improvement to her house in the period between their initial discussions with Foxconn and the public announcement. “You let it happen,” she stated bitterly. “Even though you knew this was coming.”

Affected homeowners we spoke to said the Village has yet to release their offers, even though the Village assessors have long completed their work. At one point Village officials talked about offers at 140 percent the pre-Foxconn property values, even as they were in the process of buying local farms for five times or more the previous going rate. If the Village doesn’t resolve its homeowner offers, which many fear will be lower than replacement cost, Sanders sees it headed for court. It could get ugly. It’s hard to know just how property holdouts would affect the Foxconn project, with construction on their first million-square-foot assembly facility scheduled to start this spring. It does recall the common metaphor a number of residents had used to describe the speed and magnitude of Foxconn’s arrival. “It’s a freight train,” they said. It seems unlikely that anyone will prosper by stepping into its path.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare and purposeful stealth, Foxconn has already arrived. No Foxconn signs banner their first Wisconsin production facility, a large Costco-sized rented warehouse just off I-94 in Mt. Pleasant, a few miles up the road from their future home. Most of the workers are assembly laborers making $14/hour, but no ads for assembly workers have been posted by Foxconn. When I  stopped by in January the parking lot had a couple dozen older cars and battered pickups with Wisconsin and Illinois plates, along with a half dozen cars from Indiana. The workers were busy inside assembling TVs under the auspices of managers and technicians who had cut their teeth at Foxconn’s largest existing U.S. operation in Plainfield, Indiana, outside Indianapolis. It was a first glance at what Wisconsin might be seeing in terms of employment when the company expands operations into its first buildings, scheduled to be open for business within a year.

We know from Foxconn-filed documents that they project three-fourths of their labor force to be hourly workers. We also know that the project was sold by Gov. Walker and his administration as a source of “13,000 family supporting” jobs. While this initial assembly plant can’t be projected across the entire future Foxconn complex, we know that $14/hour is a far cry from the promised average annual salary of $54,000, far enough that instead of family-supporting, it would likely qualify families for food stamps, housing assistance and state-supported health care.

When asked where you could apply for an assembler job a worker gave me the name of a staffing company. “I went through their Chicago office,” he said, an early indicator that contradicted the booster promises that the workforce would be almost entirely Wisconsinite, even though the factory site is just a nine-minute drive from the Illinois border. The premise of large numbers of Wisconsin residents making $54,000 a year is fundamental to the state of Wisconsin’s payback calendar for the $3 billion it gave Foxconn, which was originally, and highly optimistically, calculated to be about 25 years. In fact, all the workers I talked to were being employed by temporary agencies rather than Foxconn directly, a pattern we’d seen in their other U.S. locales.

Back in October, in Mt. Pleasant, I spoke with a Foxconn employee on hand at one of the first public introductions to the project. Like the supervisors at the TV assembly plant he was from the Indiana facility. I asked if they still used a lot of temp workers back in Plainfield.

“We do!” he exclaimed, as if pleasantly surprised by my interest and knowledge. “But we’re working on getting them integrated more quickly into Foxconn employment. It’s been taking around two years.”

In our previous stories about Foxconn in Wisconsin, we looked at the likely disappointments in the jobs Foxconn would create for Wisconsinites, the flawed investment case and negotiation process, and the environmental and social disasters impending for local residents. On all accounts, we found Wisconsin’s $3 billion investment in Foxconn destined to disappoint Wisconsinites. The manner in which Racine County residents are being evicted and the employment realities thus far of Foxconn’s new TV assembly plant in Mt. Pleasant give us no reason to revise our judgment.

 

Lawrence Tabak is a writer based in Madison, Wis. His work has appeared in Fast Company, Forbes, and The Atlantic MonthlyHe can be reached at ltaba@yahoo.com.

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38 Comments

  1. Kim Mahoney April 11, 2018 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Nice job, Lawrence. I know some people will read this and say, why don’t those people just leave for the good of the Village? They don’t understand that (1) we are not hold outs and we are willing to leave as long as we are paid enough to rebuild on a similar 1 acre lot near work and school; and (2) what the Village is doing violates Wisconsin state law, the Wisconsin Constitution and the US Constitution. It is also inconsistent with the Kelo decision because giving all of this land to Foxconn does not meet the public use test in the Judge Kennedy’s concurring opinion. If allowed to do this, it mean private property is never safe from taking by the government for any reason. Everyone who owns property should be outraged by what the Village of Mount Pleasant is doing. They can offer Foxconn $764 Million in incentives, they made millionaires out of the vacant landowners by paying them more than 5 times their property values, but they are bullying the homeowners out with low-ball appraisals and offering only 1.4 times their property values and calling them “generous offers.” Its shameful!

    • Michael Carlson April 11, 2018 at 4:03 pm - Reply

      Kim. I know some of your family. I wish the best for you!!!!

    • steve April 13, 2018 at 2:05 pm - Reply

      “why don’t those people just leave for the good of the Village?” who on earth would say that?

      • Howie April 15, 2018 at 2:08 pm - Reply

        MAGA C.H.U.D.s, that’s who’d say that.

    • mike April 15, 2018 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      is there anyone else that will offer 1.4 times the value of the home? 5 times the value of your house is being greedy too.

      • Mike April 15, 2018 at 7:51 pm - Reply

        My house is worth 100 times the value if it’s mine and I don’t want to sell it. This is America: when you own something, it’s yours.

      • Nancy April 16, 2018 at 2:16 pm - Reply

        If other landowners have been paid five times the value of their land, why aren’t these landowners being offered the same deal? They are not being greedy – how much would you want to be paid to leave behind property that you loved, had improved and expected to spend the rest of your life on?

  2. Peggy Spierings April 11, 2018 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    I read the entire article. Even before reading I have been aware of how wrong land, home and business owners are being treated. Money is one thing. The eminent domain law is being broken. I hope Sanders can help everyone. Also, I hope the holdup causes enough of a slow down to stop this horrible deal made by Walker. There is so many ifs, too much money, and our beautiful state at risk. I am pulling for you all and our state.

  3. Michael Carlson April 11, 2018 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    Peggy, you understand more than I do. I’m on Hansche pond and hope everyone is paid fairly.

  4. Karen Hermansen April 11, 2018 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    What is also disheartening is that in the recent election, three out of four candidates who support designating these properties as blighted were elected, yet in a local poll, people were overwhelmingly opposed to using the false designation of blight to take people’s homes. .

  5. ChazMikell April 12, 2018 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    This is also happening to people in other parts of the state but from HV transmission lines and oil pipelines. It is fascism when private, for-profit companies are able to invoke Eminent Domain AND take profits for company execs their shareholders by stealing private citizens property. The “greater good” is met through full compensation to those targeted to give up what they’ve worked for so an already profitable company can show growth. If you can’t take responsibility for your companies acquisitions (pay for them), your company is a weak, criminal failure (run and aided by criminals).

  6. Lawrence Tabak April 12, 2018 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Note from author: In the recent supervisors election 30% of the registered voters in Mt. Pleasant turned out, meaning that 16% of the registered voters could swing the election. Take out taxpayers who are unregistered and a motivated minority (or just a bunch of voters whose information come from reading and watching ads) are making policy for everyone else.

  7. Another 99% April 12, 2018 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Go and take a look at the “land” that was taken in that landmark case Kelso vs New London, what actually happened to it? Big business purchased this country, including the Supreme Court, decades ago. Trump and his ilk, the .01% who now own most of this country and use politicians like the Gov of Wisconsin, are eviscerating the middle class, this is just another symptom.

  8. Hahaheehee April 12, 2018 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    This is going to big a huge mess when Foxconn decides to not pay employees what they’re worth, then the only people that will want to work there are in the “low income” category.

  9. Mike April 12, 2018 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Here’s a thought; perhaps it’s time to stop voting for politicians like Scott Walker

    • Brian M April 16, 2018 at 1:57 pm - Reply

      Racine County is pretty hard core GOP, I bet.

  10. Dustin April 12, 2018 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    Let’s take bets if Mark Belling and fellow conservative talk radio hosts cover this story. I bet not.

  11. Sybil Brakken April 13, 2018 at 12:54 am - Reply

    This is insane! Our wonderful state is being destroyed by Walker. When are voters going to wake up?

  12. Rich April 13, 2018 at 1:21 am - Reply

    ALL our major institutions across the country are FAILING the citizens of the United States. The schools, the banks, the healthcare , the social services, and every other community based service are lurching along failing in their responsibilities to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty” upon us ALL, not just the uber rich.

    • Mooseontheloose April 13, 2018 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      Maybe those government institutions appear to be failing because of the changes made by those republicans in control of our legislation have reduced funding in their attempt to turn the public against social services, schools, etc…VOTE THEM OUT.

  13. public only April 13, 2018 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Emminent domain should never be used for a private companies profit, ever! It was never intended to be used for these things when first conceived. It was intended for highways, public buildings etc. It should only ever be used for those things.

  14. Sheilah Taylor April 13, 2018 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    I’m from Texas and, as I’m sure many will surmise, I am a conservative “R” word. Make no mistake however. I am appalled at the increasing abuse of power our government continues to display year after year. Abuse of eminent domain is simply criminal. The government, whether it be local, state or federal, is usurping our declared rights, stealing our land, and selling it to foreign countries. This is outrageous; it’s criminal; and it’s un-damn-constitutional!

    I have become increasingly disenchanted with, frankly, all of our government and it’s self-serving interests. They lie. You’re living it.

    Bravo to the law firm(s) standing up for your rights. Bravo to those who are attending town meetings. Bravo to those disseminating this information. Prayers up for the citizens of Wisconsin.

  15. Keith April 14, 2018 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    This is just a math exercise. Assuming that 3/4 of the 13,000 jobs earn $14/hour, and the remaining 3,250 jobs earn $20/hour, which they may not (a hundred or so may earn more), it would only take 5 executives earning $51,376,000/year to meet the target promised average salary. See! Promise kept. Of course, there is still massive poverty, food stamps, and housing assistance. People from Wisconsin are healthy! They don’t need health care!

    Essentially, Racine County is giving the area to Foxconn to be a factory town with trapped labour that can’t afford to move.

  16. Jane Arnold April 14, 2018 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    I bet Walker got/gets his money.

  17. Aaron April 14, 2018 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    If you think about the values you want this country to represent and the values you want your kids to learn and practice: How does the Racine/Wisconsin government’s actions in this case play into that?

    Even if this project overall helps Wisconsin’s economy, is it really worth giving up essential human and American values for?

  18. Nancy Woodward April 14, 2018 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    Let me get this straight. first the state pays Foxconn 3 billion dollars to open a factory in the state of Wisconsin. then the Village of Mt. Pleasant sweetens the pot with another 764 million dollars of the citizens’ hard earned tax payments–all to provide jobs that pay the workers enough to support themselves without tax funded public assistance for food stamps and health care.
    This is fiscal conservatism??? And then those tax funded governments collude with a Chinese company to throw honest hard working tax payers out of their homes?
    This is Making America Great Again? For whom?
    I am horrified, ashamed of my government for its dishonesty and its illegal abuse of citizens. And I’m scared. What if they find some excuse to come gunning for me? Who will stand for me? The time to stop this abuse is now, and the place to draw the line is Mt.Pleasant. Where can I contribute? How can I be of help?

  19. Ben Miller April 15, 2018 at 10:24 am - Reply

    “We will pay an average of $54,000 per year” And you believed them? 2500 employees at near minimum wage and one guy at $400,000,000 is the way that usually works in GOP America. Keep voting for Walker, Dump, Ryan and watch what happens!

  20. Nathan Lee April 15, 2018 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    They’ll bring in a lot of foreign workers, not locals. Sure, some service jobs may trickle over, but you’re screwing a lot of people. Why can’t Foxconn just find a large parcel somewhere someone is willing to sell?

    Why steal people’s homes in order to build a Chinese company’s mega factory?

  21. Jennifer Bergmann April 15, 2018 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Good job, Lawrence ! I agree with you 100% about the illegal eminent domain in Mount Pleasant, WI where Foxconn will construct a mega-plant. That is WRONG and EVIL hearts of the politicians who endorse the Foxconn deal via Governor Scott Walker because the idyllic rural will be completely gone. I earnestly hope the Institute for Justice attorneys who is helping farm owners and will prevail in the court.

  22. William Jackson April 15, 2018 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    This does indeed deserve a detailed investigation. I read one comment where raw farmland was purchased for 5 times it’s value. It is true that raw farmland is wirth a lot less per acre than a house on a serviced lot. Surely there is enough raw farmland in the area for a plant site to be built, leaving developed communities to sell at their own discretion into the the resulting community. What more would a company want than a community where their employees can live in homes they rent/buy in a fairmarket manner? Some will sell, and take the money they get to move, some will stay etc. I have seen the military barrack style employee housing that Foxconn uses in China. Even so, there is a need for an employee’s residence, with rooms etc in a good manner.
    Does Foxconn not see this sort of culture shock imposition onto US workers is not what they want, not what the town wants etc.
    I suggest engaging Foxconn at the executive level to solve this for the benefit of all.

  23. julia howe April 16, 2018 at 12:54 am - Reply

    hoping for all the residents involved, it is resolved quickly and they get a fair price (at least 2x their house value) so they can confidently find a comparable house. otherwise it could get ugly when the private company takes control of the land and charges everyone backrent plus fees for being on their land. it has happened before to citizens in conneticut and they ended up displaced, homeless, and in debt.

  24. Karen April 16, 2018 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    If I lived in one of those houses, or owned property there, I would get on the phone with Didier Farms, and find out what attorney they used to fight their eminent domain case that they won!

  25. Red O April 17, 2018 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Trump said he would bring jobs back to America. Those who voted for maggots like him and Scott Walker must be so proud of themselves.

  26. Cheryl April 17, 2018 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Well if they’re that persistent to stay then let them. Foxconn can just build right up to about 30 feet from their front door or along side of their house. That’ll change their tune. Then they will want to sell but by then it’ll be too late to buy a piece of property that’s already sitting next to Foxconn.

  27. Timothy April 19, 2018 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    I heard Lawrence talk on WHAD Radio. I was one of the victims of Greenfield Wi eminent domain attempt to take four properties from long established businesses to develop the area now called “Loomis Crossing”
    This happened eight years ago right in the middle of our last depression. Greenfield finally relinquished this heinous maneuver only after very loud out crying from the public and the hiring of a very competent trail Lawyer. Since then many people have told me about other eminent domain situations. The most interesting one is the land that is now part of Franklin WI sanitary garbage hill. The story is: the property under the hill is still owned by the Farmer. His family homesteaded that property from the Federal Government in the 1880s and under certain Homesteading law, no bank, no government or entity can take this property as long as it remains in his family. I do not know if any of the property owners are heirs to their property. If they are these ‘Home Steader” protection laws should be looked into.

  28. Jerome Weisser April 20, 2018 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    I was taught, in school, that eminent domain was government projects. Like roadways, schools and riding “slum & crime ” neighborhoods and replacing them with affordable housing along with normal facilities for use by local residents. Our Governor is not working for the people who pay taxes and just want normal lives for their families.

  29. Tttt April 21, 2018 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    How to fund support for legal action against this illegal action against the law.

  30. Tony B May 21, 2018 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    The reason it can be considered blighted land is because the crime rate will increase by 3 once FOXCONN moves in and begins hiring through staffing agencies in Chicago and paying low wages for cheap labor.

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