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Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules on Land Annexation

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a western Wisconsin city improperly annexed land for a proposed sand mine but sidestepped larger questions about the legality of such “balloon on a string” takings, according to a report in APG of Wisconsin.

In 2015, the Trempealeau County city of Whitehall annexed a 1,248-acre parcel in the adjacent town of Lincoln that was targeted for development by Whitehall Sand and Rail, which sought to operate a frac sand mine within city limits.

The town challenged the annexation in court based on the shape, a narrow strip of land that zigzags more than five miles to the northwest, as well as on procedural grounds: The petition for “annexation by unanimous approval” lacked one signature.

After losing in circuit court and an appeals court, the town asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the annexed property could be considered contiguous under the state’s “rule of reason” doctrine and whether the city – by acting with a business that did not own the land – was a “controlling influence.”

The court determined the missing signature invalidated the petition and sent the case back to the circuit court, declining to address the substance of the other arguments. On the issue of signatures, the court ruled, state law is unambiguous. In the 7-0 decision, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote that “unanimous” means “unanimous.”

Peter Reinhardt, the town’s attorney, called it an important victory for towns because the court recognized that a city can’t simply call an annexation request “unanimous” and thereby limit the grounds on which it can be challenged.

“This decision at least allows a town to say, ‘Let’s call it what is,’ and our rights to be more expansive – based on what it is rather than what it’s called,” he said.

The Wisconsin Towns Association, which argued that irregular-shaped annexations violate the intent of the law and lead to all kinds of problems, hailed the ruling as a partial victory. But executive director Mike Koles said towns will likely ask the Legislature to clarify the law.