Stewart and Carol Calkins are striving to save the farm that has been in the Calkins family for more than 150 years. The historic house on their farm dates back to the mid 1800s and much of the original woodwork and décor has been preserved. Photo By Gloria Hafemeister
Eminent domain divides an historic farm
When Carol and Stewart Calkins first heard that the village of Palmyra planned to annex a portion of their farm to the village, they brushed off the notion.
The village wanted to make the Calkin land a part of the village industrial park for expansion of the Standard Process business.
The Calkins had no plans to sell the farm that had been in their family for more than 150 years and figured the village expansion could go elsewhere.
Then they found out just how serious the village was about their proposal. They received annexation papers and learned that they didn’t have a choice.
Villages and cities have authority to control what happens on land bordering the community in order to carry out the growth plans.
What happened to this family is happening in many areas of the country because villages and cities have extraterritorial rights. Some communities around the U.S. have been taken to court over the issue and in some cases the private land owners have won, but the Calkins don’t believe they stand a chance.
According to current laws regarding emininent domain, a state, city or village can seize private property, generally for public uses such as public facilities, utilities, highways or railroads.
Traditionally, the power of eminent domain has been exercised for the construction of large public projects, but its use is beginning to be broadened to projects involving not “public use” but “public benefit.”
Fifth district U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has introduced a bill H.R. 1433 – the Private Property Rights Protection Act – currently in committee in the U.S. Senate. Even if this bill eventually makes its way through Congress and passes, it might not help people in the situation that the Calkins find themselves.
According to Joe DeYoung of MSA Professional Services, who worked on the plan for the village of Palmyra, eminent domain was not a factor in this case. He declined to comment on the plan due to pending legal litigation.
In the Calkins’ case, the request for annexation came from the private company, Standard Process, which is currently located in the village industrial park and employs about 300 people. The public benefit to the village of Palmyra is to allow the company to expand its operation and build a connecting road between the manufacturing plant and the farm where the raw materials for the health and vitamin products are grown.
Standard Process bought a parcel of land in the township that was not adjacent to the village. They petitioned to get that parcel annexed and the village accepted their proposal, but had to annex more land so that the 40 acre parcel was connected to the village. They came up with 30 acres from the Calkins, six or seven acres owned by the Town of Palmyra, and a little from another farm owner.
That resulted in Standard Process owning more than half of the land and, therefore, could petition to get it all annexed, whether or not landowners agreed.
Some other communities have also used the annexation statute of Direct Annexation, in which one-half of the land owners agree, to force others to annex their land.
Standard process is a very successful company which makes whole food supplement products sold through chiropractors and veterinarians.
The Callkins say the organic farm operated by Standard Process just down the road from them has been a good neighbor and they do not have a problem with the company. They just believe it is not necessary to take good farm land and put it into an industrial park.
They believe the current road would serve the company well, as it has in the past, to transport processed crops to the manufacturing plant.
Stealing from the township?
Steward Calkins, who has been the chairman of the township of Palmyra for 40 years, is also concerned about the town losing its tax base in order to increase the tax base of the village.
His wife states, “This land grab is being sold to the public as a way to keep the village strong, increase its tax base and attract jobs.”
She said it may sound politically correct but, in her eyes, it’s stealing.
“What about the township tax base?” she said. “We do not want to sell our farm or pay taxes to the village. Surely we have some rights.”
“To add insult to injury, the village sent us two quarterly storm water bills for a total of $60.38 – or $241.52 a year,” she added. “What benefit is our farm getting from the village storm water system? Our sandy loam farm land has never needed storm water relief.”
Palmyra Village Clerk Laurie Mueller says the storm water assessment charge is done according to a current village ordinance requiring that all land owners be charged this fee. She said, in light of the Calkins’ objection to the assessment, the village engineers are looking into whether it should be charged on farm land.
According to Mueller, the annexing of the Calkins land was the result of a request by Standard Process because the company had purchased another parcel of land that they then annexed to the village. The annexation of the Calkins land is to connect that parcel to the village.
Without the Calkins’ property, the other land would be an island, not connected to the village and, therefore, could not be annexed.
Jefferson County is leading the state in farmland preservation efforts and has a purchase of development rights conservation easement program in place. In February the Jefferson County Board updated its farmland preservation plan to align it with the state’s Working Lands law.
The county, however, has also determined it will not interfere with urban growth, so it did not get involved with the Palmyra annexation issue.
According to Margaret Burlingham, who has worked with farmland preservation issues in Jefferson County, if a town is concerned about the extraterritorial rights of villages and cities and how that will affect town planning and tax base in the future, town officials should work with neighboring village or city officials to work out an agreement for future planning.
She said the township and city of Lake Mills has done that.
She also said the Wisconsin Towns Association has been monitoring the situation closely as well, since the issue of annexation and using powers of eminent domain is coming up in many parts of the state.
Meanwhile, the Calkins are working with their attorneys to try to resolve the situation.
Stewart Calkins has lived on the farm all his life. The farm has been in his family for 160 years.
Carol also comes from a sesquicentennial farm family who settled in nearby Waukesha County 160 years ago.
Stewart’s family came from New York State as pioneers in the early 1840s.
“We do not want to sell it for any price,” he said. “Our people were honest, hard working farmers and community leaders. We love the land, the wildlife, birds, wildflowers and asparagus that are in the fence rows. Since we retired, we rent our land to a neighbor who also takes pride in good land stewardship.”
The Calkins have granted an easement to the local Palmyra airport on one portion of their farm. They were paid $1,000 for that easement and they say that did not affect any farming activity. It was simply to make it possible for the airport, owned by the township, to satisfy the federal rules governing airports.
Their farm includes 195 acres, plus another 40 acres of land-locked woodland two miles away from the home farm.
Both Steward and Carol graduated from Palmyra High School and went on to college. In 1953 Stewart took over the family farm after his dad died.
They married in 1955 and had three children.
Carol’s great-great grandfather Eli Pierce is one of the few Revolutionary War patriots buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Whitewater. She also has a great-grandfather who served in the Civil War.
Stewart’s father was an airplane mechanic in France during World War I.
One of their sons-in-law is a decorated Command Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard. He recently returned from his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan and he and his family live on Carol’s family homestead.
The Stewards are thankful that law does prohibit the village from taking the home they live in.
Their unique, historic house was built in the mid 1800s and has been preserved, including the unusual curved woodwork, windows, pocket doors, parlor fireplace and staircase with hand-made railing leading to the living quarters upstairs.
Even the wall paper and light fixtures are original.
Some family heirlooms adorn the home and the walls are lined of photos of family members, including Stewart’s great-grandparents wedding that took place in the parlor of the home.
Carol would like to get the home listed on the National Historic place list, but as yet she has not completed the necessary paper work and documentation to do so.
Still, they enjoy the memories and would like to continue to follow the advice they received from both of their parents: “Hang on to the land. It will always be your best investment.”