After listening to comments from various SC Johnson employees and two state lawmakers Tuesday at the Sturtevant Village Board meeting, trustees unanimously approved holding over a relocation order for Willow Road and continuing negotiations between the parties.
Specifically, the relocation order was tabled for two weeks – until the next board meeting – so a new negotiation committee can continue meeting with SCJ reps to hammer out an agreement for 2.6 acres in order to redirect Willow Road to connect with 84th Street. The village wants to complete the project next year ahead of the state Department of Transportation plan to widen Highway 11 from 92nd Street to Highway 31.
The land in question lies at the southern tip of Waxdale. Though most of the property is located in Mount Pleasant, a small portion of it crosses into Sturtevant, and the village needs the land to redirect Willow Road.
A couple dozen SC Johnson employees, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, attended the board meeting to voice their support for the company’s side of the story in the Willow Road relocation matter.
Talks between SCJ and Sturtevant about Willow Road have been taking place off and on for almost 20 years but in earnest for the last five years as the state’s plan for Durand Avenue has come more firmly together. Sturtevant officials maintain they’ve been trying to pin down a purchase price in line with discussions, but when representatives from SC Johnson wouldn’t commit, the village was forced to file a claim of eminent domain.
Last month, company CEO Fisk Johnson revealed that the company hired an engineering firm for additional options. Those plans were not formally presented to Sturtevant until Monday when village officials met with the DOT for the first time about them.
The case for SC Johnson
At the board meeting Tuesday, trustees took up the issue of a formal relocation order, which Sturtevant Administrator/Clerk Mary Cole said was not related to eminent domain, that attorneys advised the village it was necessary before any real estate appraisal of the 2.6-acre parcel could take place.
During public comment, Kelly Semrau, an SCJ vice-president, voiced the option of a true land swap; Sturtevant’s 10-acre yard waste dump for the 2.6 acres the village needs for Willow Road.
“We’re willing to discuss almost any option; swapping the yard waste site with permanent easements, maybe not right away, maybe over a few years,” she said. “I know we can get together to solve this.”
Semrau said the situation with Sturtevant has caused SCJ to postpone plans for a $70 million plant expansion at Waxdale, and employees are worried.
“We’re ready and we know folks here are worried,” she added. “Plans for a $70 million expansion are stalled because we’re waiting to see how this works out. We hope Sturtevant is open for business because we’ve always been open.”
Vos said he didn’t want to tell Sturtevant what to do but said the village was violating an important rule of business and governance; keeping existing businesses and helping them grow. He also made the point that eminent domain is granted by the Legislature, and lawmakers could slow that process.
“I trust your judgement, and I know you will make the right decision,” Vos stated.
Several SC Johnson employees asked Sturtevant to halt the eminent domain claim and save their jobs.
“I am a worker and I know most of you are workers, too, and understand that we all have bills to pay and kids to send to college,” Kim Dunn said. “You need to remember that there is a people factor and you have to consider them. I hope no one is too stubborn and can work together.”
Sandra Herrera, Jim Day, and Stewart Morrisey also asked for the village to return to the negotiating table to help protect their jobs and those of their SCJ colleagues.
Relocation tabled, for now
Trustee Chris Wright requested a two-minute recess during which he retrieved two boxes full of binders that contain the written record of the Willow Road matter.
“This represents the history of this situation,” he said with his hand on one of the boxes. “I am not happy we’ve come to this; it never should have come to something like this. I encourage both sides to re-think how discussions are handled.”
Trustee John Johnson let the audience know that he is not usually in favor of eminent domain, but after almost 20 years of documents and negotiations, Sturtevant had no other choice.
“No one wanted it to come to this, and we are not the bad guys,” he said. “I hate eminent domain because it’s taking, not negotiations, but SCJ wasn’t coming to the table, and we ran out of options. We’d rather negotiate, and it’s just not accurate that we just want to take the land.”
It was Wright’s suggestion that the relocation order be tabled for two weeks, and after a brief discussion, was unanimously approved.
The Sturtevant negotiating committee is comprised of Village Administrator/Clerk Mary Cole, Engineer/DPW Director Jeff Seitz, former Administrator Mark Janiuk, and Village Assessor James Henke. They will report back to board members, but any final determinations will be voted on by the fully board.
When asked after the meeting if she thinks the two sides can come to an agreement, Semrau had no doubt.
“Absolutely. We can do it in an afternoon,” she said. “This really isn’t that hard.”