Just five months after an adverse ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court had her in tears, Donna Murr was celebrating Monday after Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that gives Wisconsin property owners more rights.
The Murr family fought for more than a dozen years, and all the way to the Supreme Court, for the ability to sell undeveloped land next to their cottage along scenic Lake St. Croix in western Wisconsin.
One of two property rights bills Walker signed Monday will give the family the right to sell or build on substandard lots if the lots were legal when they were created.
The Supreme Court ruled against the Murrs in June, but hours later state Rep. Adam Jarchow was on the phone with Donna Murr promising her he would take the fight to the Legislature.
"It's been a long road," Murr said after she and six other family members came to Walker's Capitol office for his signing of the bill Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, introduced. "It just felt like a culmination of everything we've worked for, coming to a head today after so many years of struggling and battling."
Donna Murr's parents bought two adjacent lots in the early 1960s and built a cottage on one but left the other vacant as an investment. In 2004, Donna Murr and her siblings wanted to sell the undeveloped lot to help pay for renovations to the cottage, but county officials barred the sale because conservation rules from the 1970s treat the two lots as a single property that can't be divided.
The regulations were intended to prevent overcrowding, soil erosion and water pollution. The county argued before the Supreme Court that not enforcing the rules would undermine its ability to minimize flood damage and maintain property values in the area.
But the family claimed those rules essentially stripped the land of its value and amounted to an uncompensated seizure of the property. They sought compensation for the vacant property they were forbidden to sell. The government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed in June, that it's fair to view the property as a whole and said the family is owed nothing.
Now with the law changed in Wisconsin, the Murr family can sell the vacant section. Donna Murr said she and her siblings will take some time to decide what to do next.
"The main thing is we have our choices back," she said. "We can do what we want."
The conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative land rights group that represented the Murr family, praised the new law as a win for homeowner rights and a model for other states to follow.
"Securing property rights is fundamental to the protection of individual liberty, and the Murr family deserves thanks for their long, determined fight to vindicate those rights - for themselves and everyone else," said James S. Burling, director of litigation with Pacific Legal Foundation.
Other parts of the two property rights' bills signed by Walker would make it easier to get conditional-use permits and variances, maintain non-conforming structures, dredge private ponds and appeal assessments when a homeowner refuses to let the assessor inside the house. The new law also makes clear that homeowners' associations and housing cooperatives can't prevent homeowners from displaying the American flag.