Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules for Land Condemnation in Sidewalk Case

The semantics of whether or not a sidewalk is a pedestrian way were the subject of the split 4–3 ruling by the high court.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules for Land Condemnation in Sidewalk Case
The Wisconsin Supreme Court listens to arguments during a hearing at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 21, 2023. (Ruthie Hauge/The Capital Times via AP, Pool)
Chase Smith

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided in a split ruling on June 19 that under state law, a “pedestrian way” is not considered a sidewalk.

The decision answered what had been a convoluted issue for lower courts and now allows for local governments to use eminent domain to take a piece of land from a business.

The state’s high court ruled that the village of Egg Harbor could proceed with its plan to take a small piece of land from Sojenhomer LLC to build a sidewalk aimed at improving safety.

Sojenhomer LLC owns a building at the location of a local brewery and restaurant and argued that state law does not allow the village to take their land because it prohibits taking land to create “pedestrian ways.”

The semantics of whether or not a sidewalk is a pedestrian way were the subject of the split 4–3 ruling by the high court, with the majority taking a more nuanced approach to the words.

“The ordinary meaning of a statute is dictated by more than the literal meaning of a single phrase, read in isolation,” Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet wrote in the majority’s 20-page ruling. “Rather, as we have emphasized before, statutes must be interpreted in their entirety, and in context.”

In dissent, Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler wrote that the “straightforward, common sense interpretation” of the law is that a walk designated for pedestrian travel includes the part of the highway constructed for the use of pedestrians and intended for the use of persons on foot.

Legal Background

The case involves the village of Egg Harbor’s 2015 proposal to build a sidewalk at the intersection of two roads near the business. The area had been identified as hazardous for both pedestrians and motorists, prompting the village to seek solutions to improve safety.

The proposed sidewalk required taking 0.009 acres of land from Sojenhomer LLC, the owner of Shipwrecked Brew Pub and Restaurant.

Sojenhomer LLC challenged the village’s action, arguing that Sections 32.015 and 61.34(3)(b) of the Wisconsin Statutes prohibit the use of condemnation to acquire property for pedestrian ways.

The plaintiff contended that sidewalks fall within the definition of pedestrian ways as “walks designated for the use of pedestrian travel” under Section 346.02(8)(a).

The Door County Circuit Court initially ruled in favor of the village, stating that sidewalks are not pedestrian ways under the relevant statutes.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed this decision, agreeing with Sojenhomer LLC that sidewalks are indeed pedestrian ways, thus blocking the village’s condemnation efforts.

Supreme Court’s Opinions

The majority opinion by Justice Dallet, joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Jill Karofsky, and Janet Protasiewicz, sided with the village of Egg Harbor.

The court concluded that the statutory language does not include sidewalks within the definition of pedestrian ways.

Justice Dallet explained that the definition of pedestrian way in Section 346.02(8)(a), when read in the broader context of related statutes, does not encompass sidewalks.

The court noted that the Legislature could have explicitly included sidewalks in the prohibition if that was its intention but chose not to.

“The ordinary meaning of the statutes, considered in their entirety and context, suggests that sidewalks and pedestrian ways are distinct categories,” Justice Dallet wrote. “Therefore, the limitations on condemnation in §§ 32.015 and 61.34(3)(b) did not prohibit the Village from condemning Sojenhomer’s property to build a sidewalk.”

Chief Justice Ziegler, joined by Justices Rebecca Grassl Bradley and Brian Hagedorn, dissented. The dissenting opinion argued that the statutory definition of a pedestrian way is broad and plainly includes sidewalks, which are specifically constructed for pedestrian use.

“All sidewalks are pedestrian ways, but not all pedestrian ways are sidewalks,” Chief Justice Ziegler wrote. “The Village exceeded its condemnation authority when it acquired Sojenhomer’s property through condemnation to construct a sidewalk.”

The Supreme Court’s decision allows the village of Egg Harbor to proceed with its sidewalk construction project.

This ruling establishes a precedent for future cases involving property condemnation under eminent domain.

Chase is an award-winning journalist. He covers national news for The Epoch Times and is based out of Tennessee. For news tips, send Chase an email at [email protected] or connect with him on X.