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'Blighted' label upsets residents at Foxconn plant site

By AI HEPING in New York | | Updated: 2018-06-11 05:15

Taiwan-based Foxconn is known as one of the world's largest manufacturers of electronic gear. Now some property owners in the Wisconsin village where it will build its first US factory are upset at being known as a "blighted'' area to make room for the plant.

On June 4, the village board of Mount Pleasant – approximately 30 miles south of Milwaukee – voted 6 to 1 to declare about 2,800 acres of farmland and several dozen homes in the community of about 26,000 "blighted'', allowing it to use eminent domain to obtain property from holdout landowners in the area.

The Foxconn development is scheduled to break ground on June 29, and US President Donald Trump announced last week that he will attend the ceremony. Construction is set to begin in August.

In wooing Foxconn to the state, Wisconsin officials offered the company $3 billion in tax and other financial incentives. Foxconn makes electronics for Apple Inc's iPhones and other tech companies and has said the plant will eventually employ 13,000.

Mount Pleasant officials said they have acquired about 100 properties for the plant, or about 80 percent of the land needed. Officials said the blight designation won't change their land-acquisition plans.

"The village will continue its efforts to acquire all property needed for the Foxconn development through voluntary agreements with property owners," said Alan Marcuvitz, an attorney for the village.

Declaring the area blighted has upset some village residents. Mount Pleasant board member Gery Feest is one of them. He was the only no vote on the resolution.

"I am in favor of Foxconn. … I think the potential for good is there," Feest said. "Anyone that thinks blighted will think there has to be something wrong with the property, but there's nothing wrong with any of these properties. These are beautiful properties. We are using a technicality to forward the village's interests, and I don't agree with that.

"I have a conscience, and when I stand before God and he says, 'Did you determine it was blighted for a legal technicality to further this project along?' I'm going to tell him it's not blighted."

In January, a dozen property owners in the village filed suit in federal court saying the use of eminent domain to seize property is unconstitutional because it would benefit a private company, Foxconn, rather than the public. They also said what the village offered for their property was too low. A judge dismissed the suit on May 29.

The village has paid owners of large vacant parcels of land $50,000 per acre. Those with houses on smaller lots have received 140 percent of fair market value plus a package of relocation benefits.

Marcuvitz has said that the village is properly using state law that allows an area to be declared blighted if it's predominantly open or impedes the community even though not a single property within it is blight-ridden in the sense of being dilapidated or decayed.

Officials also say deeming the properties blighted also could save the village millions of dollars by allowing its development authority to issue double tax-exempt bonds that aren't subject to state and federal taxes.

Mount Pleasant board member Anna Marie Clausen said the decision to blight the area was necessary to move forward: "The term blighted area is not a physical description, it's a strategic position to enable us to borrow double-tax-exempt bonds."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Flynn was present at the June 4 meeting and said he didn't agree with the decision. "It's disgusting," he said. "This entire board should be replaced; they betrayed their community. But more importantly, when I'm governor, one of the first things I will do is to bring suit to stop this project."

Resident Michael Schmidt said declaring the area blighted "is beyond me''.

"We didn't ask for this. You brought Foxconn to us, and all we want is to be treated fairly and equally as you did with our neighbors who are big landowners," he said.

Schmidt said that what he had regarded as his "forever home" wasn't just a house but part of a community that he now must abandon as he starts over in a tight housing market with rising prices.

"Do you know the stress and anxiety this brings to us?" Schmidt said. "Trying to find another property that matches up with ours and stay in our community is nearly impossible."

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