Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau City Council this week was divided over a proposed Business Campus Trail project, while approving a grant application process for a multi-million dollar STEM-focused children’s museum planned for downtown.

Council members on Tuesday decided to take additional input from legal and engineering staff over the trail project after some representatives objected to proposed methods of land acquisition along the route’s trail. The council tabled a joint resolution from Wausau’s Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance (CISM) Committee and Plan Commission on approving an order that would have allowed the City to “relocate or change and acquire certain lands or interests in lands” for the multi-use trail along 72nd Avenue from Packer Drive to International Drive. Both bodies had previously approved the temporary and permanent acquisition of lands for the trail project unanimously.

But some acquisition might have required using eminent domain, which drew objections from Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian and Dist. 6 Alder Becky McElhaney. Eminent domain is the right of federal, state and local government to usurp private property for public use, following fair compensation. Using eminent domain to acquire property is considered controversial for several reasons. In addition to ongoing debates over public use, another longstanding issue is the tendency to undercompensate owners of condemned property. The Supreme Court has long held that owners must get “fair market value” compensation, which critics say fails to account for the “subjective value” that many attach to their land over and above its market value.

For example, a resident who has lived in the same neighborhood for years places value on the social ties formed there, while a small business could have established a network of clients that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. Studies also show that owners often don’t even get the fair market value compensation that the law requires.

Department of Public Works staff reasoned that due to the “nature of construction and shifting of storm water management facilities, six temporary limited easements and four permanent limited easements are required” to facilitate the trail. This would rely on the city acquiring lands along the trail route.

Kilian asked the opinion of City Attorney Anne Jacobson to see if the eminent domain method was even applicable in this case. If not, that approach to acquiring private land should be removed from the resolution. 

McElhaney, who is City Council president, also wanted to have additional oversight from the City Attorney’s office and input from the DPW. Both said they want CISM to revisit the plan.

Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen instead proposed tabling the resolution and getting feedback from department engineers and the City Attorney’s office to save time. The council then voted to request additional insight from staff.

The City Council this week approved a number of resolutions, including applying for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Community Development Investment Grant Program on behalf of the proposed the Children’s Imaginarium project. 

The pass-through grant provisions required that the City apply on behalf of the project on or before the application deadline of Feb. 1. Rasmussen, who is also Finance Committee chair, said the project does not involve any taxpayer money.

The Children’s Imaginarium, to be constructed at the demolished Wausau Center mall site, has so far raised about $3.6 million in funding and is expected to open in the Fall of 2022. Taxpayers have already contributed significant funds to the acquisition and demolition of the mall.

Council members also agreed with the Liberation and Freedom Committee’s initiative to increase community engagement to get feedback on how best the committee can serve them. Kilian, who is chair of the advisory committee, shared the report of the LF Committee with the City Council at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting.

(For the details on the Business Campus trail, click here, and go to page 38. For details on the Children’s Imaginarium, go to page 86 of the document.)