Blight: In the Eye of the Beholder

Municipal Law Alert, April 2011

Do you have blighted property in your municipality? I suspect most readers of this article reside in beautiful northwestern Wisconsin, so your answer will be no. This is an understandable answer because the term blight carries with it such negative connotations. Dictionary.com defines blight as “the state or result of being blighted or deteriorated; dilapidation; decay: urban blight.” Well, that certainly does not paint a very pretty picture. To the contrary, it brings to mind images from around the rust belt of decaying factories with broken and boarded up windows, broken doors, out of control vegetation, broken bottles, trash and rats. My suspicion is, with few exceptions, most of the communities in this area do not have very many of these structures.

Notwithstanding the ugly picture painted by the dictionary definition and the common parlance use of the term blight, under Wisconsin’s definition of blight, a property containing pristine wetlands may fall within the definition of the term “blight”. Wisconsin Stat. § 66.1333 contains a very broad definition of blight, which includes, among other things, “An area which is predominantly open and which because of obsolete platting, diversity of ownership, deterioration of structures or of site improvements, or otherwise, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.” The underscored section, “An area which is predominantly open,” appears to open the door to an extraordinarily broad interpretation of the word blight.

At least one Wisconsin Court has interpreted the term broadly. Grunwald v Community Development Authority of the City of West Allis, 202 Wis. 2d 471, 551 N.W.2d 36 (Ct. App. 1996). In Grunwald, the City of West Allis declared blighted a piece of property that contained a building that was only 7 years old and was compliant with all building codes. Grunwald’s building was part of a larger area targeted for razing and redevelopment. Relying on the provision of the Blight Elimination and Slum Clearance Act that provides that the Act be liberally construed [Wis. Stat. § 66.1333(17)], the Court held that a municipality may focus on “the general character of the area and its structures”. Thus, even though the specific piece of property at issue in the Grunwald case was in good shape, viewing all of the properties in the aggregate, it fit within the definition of blight.

What does this mean? The practical implication is that municipalities appear to have broad legislative authority to take myriad actions with respect to eliminating “blight” – which as we have now learned, can include a wide range of properties that may not appear at first sight to be blighted. These actions may include exercising the municipality’s eminent domain powers or issuing tax exempt bonds to finance the improvement of the property.

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