Ruling may not end annexation dispute

Standard Process’ petition vacated on procedural error

By Heather Ruenz


It’s been nearly a year and more than $40,000 in public legal fees since the Palmyra Village Board voted to accept Standard Process’ annexation petition of 740 acres of land. Now a recent judge’s ruling that the petition is null and void could touch off another expensive round of fighting over the area’s largest employer.

On Dec. 17, through a stipulated agreement to end a civil lawsuit filed by the Town of Palmyra and three town landowners – Stewart and Carol Calkins, Bob and Kathy Oleson, and Robert and Cheryl Willson – Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer L. Weston agreed to vacate the village’s annexation ordinance. Weston ruled Standard Process failed to properly notify all impacted landowners.

As a result, an issue that has cost the greater community thousands of dollars by way of legal fees – approximately $24,000 to the town and $19,000 to the village – is not only far from over but may happen again, assuming Standard Process files another petition for annexation and the town pursues another lawsuit against the village in an attempt to prevent it.

A company official said Standard Process has not decided whether to file a new petition.

The annexation petition filed by Standard Process and approved by the Village Board by a 5-2 vote in February 2013, was to bring the company’s manufacturing facility – located in the village – and certified organic farm – located in the town – into a single jurisdiction, the village.

Charlie DuBois, president of Standard Process, said at the time the annexation would provide the company “with a more consistent environment for operating our business and that is important as we look toward the future.”

“We failed to notify the land owners by formal service of process and the judge’s ruling was based solely on that,” Karren Jeske, communications manager for Standard Process said in response to the judge’s ruling on the lawsuit.

Though it was vacated on a specific procedural error, Town Chairman Larry Kau said the annexation proposal was defective in other ways.

“The proposed annexation allowed 740 acres of land from the town to come under village control. This would allow the village to grow from 800 to 1540 acres. This 740 acres of land consists entirely of prime agricultural land, the town airport and the Town Hall,” Kau said.

The majority of the annexation – 382 acres – is agricultural land owned by Standard Process.

Another reason Kau cited referred to a Jan. 15, 2013, letter from the Wisconsin Department of Administration Municipal Boundary Review Division that deemed the proposed annexation was against the public interest.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Local Government Center, while the DOA may advise that an annexation is against public interest, the annexing municipality – in this case the Village of Palmyra – is required only to review the recommendation before a vote is taken and is not required to side with the DOA’s finding.


Village’s view

Village President Dave Turner pointed out that Judge Weston didn’t rule against the annexation.

“The merits of the annexation were not weighed at all in the decision as this was a procedural issue. It was a mistake and mistakes happen,” Turner said.

And despite the ongoing notion by some that the village is at fault and land ownership would change as a result of the annexation, Turner said that was never the case.

“We didn’t take anything from anyone and Standard Process didn’t either. This is a growing company that plans to expand, wants their entire operation in one municipality and will need (municipal) services to grow,” Turner said.

However, according to Kau, there are several reasons town leaders stand by their opinion that the annexation would be invalid including:

• The village having no reasonable present or demonstrable future need for the annexed territory;

• The boundary being arbitrary and unreasonable;

• The village improperly gerrymandered the boundary to exclude electors;

• The annexation violating the rules of reason, and;

• The village’s plans for the territory being inconsistent with federal, state and town plans for the town airport.

Another issue, according to Kau, was the village’s RH (rural holding) zoning classification, which he said rendered “the land ineligible for future farmland preservation tax credits to which the owners of the lands involved would be entitled.”

The parcels were initially zoned RH by the village but in July 2013, the village’s plan commission approved maintaining the Jefferson County zoning of A-1 Exclusive Agriculture. The landowners and Kau were present at that meeting, according to meeting minutes.

Kau said he doesn’t believe the village received approval from the Department of Agriculture that would ensure eligibility for the preservation tax credit.

Andrew Bremer, of MSA Professional Services – the village’s engineering firm – said his understanding is that they were eligible, as long as the landowners had met the other requirements.


Compromise absent

Turner said the Village Board made the decision to approve the annexation last February in good faith and attempted to work with all of the parties involved.

“We analyzed all sides of this issue before making a decision, a decision that was made in the best interest of our residents,” Turner said.

“Farmland would continue to be farmland, the town airport was still the town airport and when they (the landowners) requested the zoning change we did that,” Turner said.

Kau said the town’s opposition is about protecting farmers.

Citing the 1844 Land Grant signed by then-President John Tyler, Kau said he saw “no exceptions in this document that would condone the attempt by the Village Board to infringe upon the individual rights and heritage of our town farmers for the village’s benefit and that of Standard Process.”

According to Turner, however, an informal meeting between town and village representatives was even held to discuss boundary agreement options and look at the possibility of detaching some parcels of the farmland included in the annexation.

“The landowners chose not to pursue the detachment route with us and the attempt at a boundary agreement went nowhere because the town wanted all of the land back, including Standard Process’ property,” Turner said.

Asked if the Town Board has any plans to try and keep Standard Process in the town, Kau said the board “values all of its residents and businesses, and will continue to work with Standard Process as it has in the past.”

Whether or not the town will launch another legal challenge if Standard Process files another petition for annexation into the village will “depend upon the scope of the next annexation. Ultimately it is a Town Board decision,” Kau said.


No immediate plans

Standard Process is reviewing its options.

“We haven’t decided yet on whether to file a new petition for annexation. We believed the annexation made sense when we asked for it initially, and continue to believe it is a good idea,” Jeske said.

“We want to be thoughtful about this and are considering the comments made to date about the annexation. We have no firm plan or timeline for filing a new petition,” Jeske added.

Adding to the list of unknowns surrounding this issue, Turner said he can’t predict how the Village Board will vote if Standard Process files another petition for annexation.

“It comes down to Village Board members setting aside their personal feelings and doing what’s best for our residents and the village as a whole,” Turner said.

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