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Lawmakers seek to solve Murr property dispute through legislation

Town of Troy property owner Donna Murr speaks during a news conference last week announcing legislation that would waive land-use restrictions that have prevented her and her siblings from selling one of two adjoining parcels along the St. Croix River. Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, were among attendees at the news conference in Madison. Image courtesy of WisconsinEye

Donna Murr said last month that she's not giving up the fight.

After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Murr and her family that laws governing their town of Troy property were unconstitutional, the Eau Claire woman said she would seek other avenues to rectify the situation.

That solution was revealed July 21 when two Wisconsin lawmakers announced a package of bills aimed at homeowners' rights — one of which would waive the land-use restrictions currently preventing the Murr family from selling the small patch of St. Croix River-side land that's become a legal sticking point.

"We're going to fix this injustice," Murr said at a news conference unveiling the bills, poised to be introduced in the fall.

Rep. Adam Jarchow, one of the two lawmakers proposing the bills, said the legislation would allow so-called substandard lots like the Murr property to be "grandfathered" in.

Attendees at the news conference were flanked by signs reading "If you want my land, you have to pay for it" and "Don't Murr der my property rights."

The Murr family owns two adjoining lots along the river, one of which contains a cabin. The other lot, purchased decades ago by the siblings' now-deceased parents, was purchased as an investment. The Murrs have since hoped to sell the lot to help pay for improvements to the cabin.

Preventing that are St. Croix County and state laws that effectively merged the two properties into one. It's because the properties are under common ownership that they are merged and unable to sell one without the other.

The family got the High Court to hear the case in March, though a ruling handed down in June put on damper on those hopes for the Murrs.

"It was a very significant turning point," Donna Murr said of the decision.

The Murrs still hope to undo that law and make the vacant parcel one they could sell.

"If this bill is signed into law, that could be a possibility," said Jarchow, a Balsam Lake Republican.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, is also backing the bill. He rejected the notion that the Murr case is an outlier with respect to legislation that will affect the rest of the state and said there are "hundreds" of similar substandard lots that stand to gain.

"It's time for us to take up that mantle," Tiffany said of the Legislature.

The legislation represents an end-around after the family was stymied by the courts.

John Groen, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, argued the Murrs' case at the U.S. Supreme Court. He said Thursday that the bill would "correct the errors made by the courts."

"We think that undermines private property rights," he said. "Fairness and justice was denied for the Murrs and that is why we're here today."

Other provisions proposed in the legislative package pertain to a new TIF district for workforce housing, a repeal of the forestry mill tax and "a number of other things," Jarchow said.

Tiffany said legislative leaders are aware of the bills, as well as Gov. Scott Walker's office.

"We really look forward to advancing these bills through the fall session," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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