by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor
Somers USA, LLC v. Wisconsin Department of Transportation
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, March 25, 2015
Somers purchased about 47 acres in 2007 to build a truck stop off of I-94. At the time the state was planning on using about 9.5 of those acres for a frontage road, and about 3 acres for an on ramp for a highway project. An engineering company helped create the Certified Survey Map (CSM). The initial draft of the CSM reserved both the 9.5-acre and the 3-acre parcels as “Future Wisconsin D.O.T. Right-of-Way.” The Kenosha County Land Use Committee approved the CSM without any conditions or communications regarding land dedication for public use.
In 2008 when Somers recorded their final CSM it dedicated the 9.5 acres as “Road Dedication for Future Highway Purposes,” and the 3 acres as “a road reservation for potential future state highway purposes.” All parties agree that Somers never intended to dedicate land for the highway project and that none of the governmental bodies involved had required or asked for a dedication. Individuals involved with drafting and signing the CSM stated that they do not know how the “dedication” language wound up in the document. The State thereafter built a frontage road and on-ramp on the two parcels without compensating Somers, relying on the “reservation” and “dedication” language in the CSM to give it a right to the property without any requirement to pay Somers for the land taken. Somers filed a complaint seeking just compensation for their land. The court ordered the state to pay Somers $500,000 plus attorney fees, costs and interest. The state appealed this decision.
The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article I section 13 of the Wisconsin Constitution prohibit the taking of land without just compensation. The state relied on Wis. Stat. §236.29(1) which states, ““[w]hen any plat is certified, signed, acknowledged and recorded as prescribed in this chapter, every donation or grant to the public … marked or noted as such on said plat shall be deemed a sufficient conveyance to vest the fee simple of all parcels of land so marked or noted.” However, for the state to rely on this statute the land must be dedicated according to proper procedure under Wis. Stat. §236.34(1m)(e), which require a local governing board to approve the dedication in the CSM. No governmental board involved in Somers’ development approved any road dedication or land grant for inclusion in the CSM; therefore, the CSM lacked the force and effect required to convey the property to the State.
The court went on: “Undeterred by the evidence that no dedication was ever intended or approved, the State proffers the absurd argument that it can still take Somers’ property without compensation as it was entitled to rely on an invalid dedication in a CSM.”
When a court leads by calling an argument “absurd” you can anticipate the results….
The court found no legal dedication, and therefore found that the state owes just compensation to the Somers.