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A land dispute between the Village of Sturtevant and Racine County, playing out as a war of attrition, came to a head Monday with Sturtevant beginning a lawsuit against the County.

The property in question consists of four vacant parcels located near the corner of 84th Street and Hwy 11. They were originally part of a planned $2.1 million commercial development that failed after the developer filed for bankruptcy, leading to a tax foreclosure process putting the property in the hands of the county. Prior to the foreclosure, the village spent $400,000 on infrastructure for the property to facilitate development.

The area, at the mouth of Sturtevants Hwy 11 commercial corridor, is a prime place for development. The four parcels are adjacent to Sturtevant’s yard waste site and land that was to be the site of a redirection of Willow road. SC Johnson was interested in purchasing the waste site and the redirection of Willow road, but negotiations for those deals fell apart. The contentious history of this area leaves village officials wondering if SC Johnson is involved in the stalled transfer of the four parcels the village now wants.

County Stalls On Land Transfer, Sturtevant Files Lawsuit

The village has been trying for well over a year to acquire the property since the tax foreclosure. Failing negotiations over the land transfer with the county, and a breakdown of communication have left the village feeling the only recourse is legal action.

In early March, Sturtevant delivered a copy of a civil complaint and a summons to the County, along with a message: If they did not hear a response from the county by Saturday March 11, they would be filed in circuit court. The deadline has passed and the items were filed Monday.

“The expressed policy of County, when it becomes the owner of any property through tax foreclosure proceedings, is to expeditiously convey ownership of any such property to the municipality in which such property is located,” the village asserts in the complaint.

Village President Steve Jansen said he and his fellow board members don’t want to sue the county. The complaint calls this area: “The commercial spine of the Village,” and Jansen said developing it would be good for both the Village and the County.

County: Transfer Would Happen In 2017

John Lehman, the corporation counsel wrote, “The timeline for this process is not exact and will depend upon committee calendars.” Still Lehman wrote that he thought all authorizations and the deed transfer could occur before the beginning of 2017.

The County Executive’s officer declined to comment for this story. They are “maintaining our policy of of not commenting on potentially pending legal matters,” said MT Boyle, spokesperson and chief of staff for Racine County.

Since the beginning of 2017, Village Trustees have been writing letters to the county admonishing them to convey the property.

In one letter from Wright to Delagrave dated Jan. 10, Wright highlighted how the county was transferring a parcel located at 2109 Racine St. to Mount Pleasant for a Habitat for Humanity project. He points to a meeting of the Mount Pleasant Village Board where Tim Zarzecki, the village administrator, said the transfer happened at the “‘the urging of the County Executive.’”

“A decision was made to donate the property at no cost to the village of Mount Pleasant at the suggestion and urging of the county executive’s office,” said Zarzecki at a meeting held Jan. 9.

Village board believes SC Johnson behind hold up

Village staff and trustees seem to be under the impression the County’s unwillingness to convey the land has something to do with the local company.

After the conclusion of a recent Village Plan Commission, Village staff and board members joked about SC Johnson being behind the stalled land transfer when asked about developments. When later asked about the joke, Jansen said nothing can be proven.

“Those of us that have been around long enough,” he said. “We know whose thumbprints are on this.”

Wright said he was told that their lawyer, Alan Marcuvitz, was negotiating with State Rep. Robin Vos and legal counsel from the S.C Johnson.

Wright told Delagrave in a letter dated Oct. 31 that he was disappointed that the negotiations didn’t include the county.

“Our representative has been forced to negotiate for the property with two parties that have no legal claim or ownership of it. It is wrong on many levels for the County to hold the economic development of one of its municipalities hostage for two special interest groups,” Wright wrote.

When recently asked why the property hadn’t been conveyed, Wright said, “I wish I had a good answer.”

But SC Johnson Public Affairs Spokesperson Kelly Semrau said the meetings were not negotiations.

“Over the last year, we were invited to meet three times with Alan Marcuvitz, State Officials and RAMAC on a wide range of issues including reconstruction of Hwy 11, the yard waste site, Cobble Court and Willow Road.  We have not been in any meetings with the Village and County with respect to the foreclosed property along Hwy 11,” Semrau said.

SC Johnson Buys Up Surrounding Properties

About a year ago, when Sturtevant offered to buy the property, S.C. Johnson bought 17 properties in the Cobble Court development creating a bulwark between its Waxdale plant and development in Sturtevant.

“We do have an interest in the condos in Cobble Court,” Semrau said. “We purchased that land behind there because it’s contiguous with the yardwaste site. That’s our interest because it is contiguous to Waxdale.”

But SC Johnson doesn’t have any interest in buying the four properties at the center of the lawsuit, she said.

Failure to communicate

In January, Racine County Corporation Counsel Jonathan Lehman said they hadn’t transferred the land at the beginning of the year because they were waiting to hear from the attorney Sturtevant retained to negotiate the land transfer.

“We’re in wait and see mode,” he said.

This claim was roundly rejected by members of the village board who say their attorney has been attempting to communicate with the county to resolve this matter.

Wright recently said his understanding was that communications had broken down to the point of exhausting, “all the cordial ways,” of communicating.

Recently, Jansen expressed his dismay that a solution had yet to be reached between the two parties.

“Why the silence? Why no meeting of the minds?” Jansen said. “Why should we have to use our resources to sue the county in order to receive land they said they would give us.”

Editor’s Note: This version of the story corrects the previous version, which should have stated that SC Johnson officials were not negotiating and that they are not interested in buying the foreclosed properties. Racine County Eye regrets the error.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.