In late summer 2017, Cathy and Rodney Jensen heard rumors that their Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, neighborhood could be changing.
Plans for a massive Foxconn flat-screen manufacturing plant had just been announced in July of that year. The Taiwanese company was planning a 20-million-square-foot complex and promised 13,000 jobs for the state.
The Jensens had owned a home along Southeast Frontage Road for more than 20 years. Cathy Jensen said attempts to get information from the village were “useless.”
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
Then, like dozens of fellow homeowners, the Jensens received a relocation order from Mount Pleasant.
“They said that they needed 0.13 acres of our frontage for a road project ... but they would be generous and offer us basically twice the amount and buy our whole property — our whole 3 acres,” Jensen said.
Wisconsin law gives municipalities the power to acquire private property using eminent domain as long as there is fair compensation and the property will be used for a public purpose. This is typically for road improvements, or sometimes to take control of dilapidated property.
As of late July, the village had paid just over $152 million for 132 properties to make way for Foxconn, plus $7.9 million in relocation costs, according to village records obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio and analyzed by Wisconsin Watch.
The village threatened eminent domain against some homeowners, saying their property was needed for road improvements. But in some cases those plans changed or were dropped even before the homes — some of them newly built — were bulldozed, state records show.
Mount Pleasant Project Director Claude Lois said in a statement that the acquisitions were at the direction of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and were needed for public roads and utility improvements.
“While the (Foxconn) project has evolved, neither the purpose of those acquisitions, nor the need for the acquisitions, has changed during this process,” he said.
Lois added that the village has worked “diligently” to secure voluntary agreements with property owners and has succeeded in doing so “in the vast majority of cases.”
The village now owns the Jensens’ house, but they are still living in it. According to village documents, $569,300 is sitting in a bank account for them. But they do not plan to touch it. Instead, the Jensens have filed two lawsuits, one in federal court and one in Racine County Circuit Court.
The Jensens argue they were offered far less than other property owners. They also argue the village cannot take property to benefit a private business — Foxconn — or to take more than the .13 acres cited in the relocation order, according to a motion that seeks to consolidate the two cases in federal court.
A DOT official said in an affidavit that the Jensen property is needed to remove property owners’ access to the frontage road to improve traffic flow and safety.
When land acquisition for Foxconn began, owners with “excess land” were offered $50,000 per acre, which the Jensens’ federal lawsuit claims is seven to 10 times the fair market value. Homeowners, on the other hand, were offered 1.4 times the value of their properties.
The suit claims the road project was a “pretext” to make them sell their property to benefit Foxconn.
And that project in front of the Jensens’ house — the one the village said was the reason for acquiring their property? It was finished last summer. The Jensens even got a new driveway out of the deal.
But Lois said the state still plans to close access to the Jensen parcel.
Cathy Jensen believes the village’s real goal is to secure their land for Foxconn. “This property was supposed to be here forever — for our kids and our grandkids,” she said.
Owners of the nearby Land of Giants pumpkin patch fought — and won a temporary reprieve — against the village’s efforts to buy their land and buildings for the Highway 11 road project related to Foxconn. After the owners sued, Mount Pleasant withdrew its demand for sale of two parcels totalling more than 200 acres — although the village had said it needed less than 10 acres for the road project.
The owners made the same legal arguments as the Jensens, claiming the offer was “a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent the prohibition against taking private property for a non-public purpose.”
On May 15, 2017, Shawn and Sarah Mayer and their two children moved into a custom built, 3,800-square-foot house on 8 acres. One month later, Shawn Mayer realized their Wheaton Lane home was right in the middle of the Foxconn site. As owners of vacant land around them sold their property at highly inflated prices, they halted landscaping.
They got a letter saying the home “was going to be purchased or taken with eminent domain,” Shawn Mayer said.
The Mayers hired an attorney, but in the end, sold their property. The village paid them $1.5 million for the house, land and relocation costs.
But questions remain about the future of Wheaton Lane. Lois said current plans still show a “major connector” in the area, but he acknowledged plans to remove Wheaton Lane could change “as those developments are solidified.”
All of the homes on Wheaton Lane are gone.
“I’ll always be a little bit bitter,” Mayer said, “just because we elect the officials that railroaded us on this.”
The village of Mount Pleasant and Racine County have created a tax-increment district to pay for $911 million in land acquisition, infrastructure and other expenses to support the Foxconn project. The costs are expected to be recouped over 30 years with funding and property tax revenue from Foxconn and other businesses in the district.
The $911 million is on top of the $3 billion incentive package approved by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
But Foxconn’s plans have repeatedly changed. The giant flatscreens have been replaced by smaller screens, with operations planned to begin in late 2020.
Foxconn fell short of its employment goal in 2018, failing to earn job tax credits. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said Foxconn also will likely fall 300 jobs short of its target of 1,800 jobs in 2020.
As Foxconn continues construction on a nearly 1 million-square-foot factory, a recent report raises fresh questions about how big the Foxconn project will be.
At the request of the state Department of Administration, an economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research examined possible changes to the Foxconn incentive package given that the “facility is reported to involve a $2 billion investment, and 1,500 to 1,800 jobs.” That is significantly smaller than the planned $10 billion facility generating 13,000 jobs.
DOA Assistant Deputy Secretary Tia Torhorst referred questions about the size of the project to Foxconn. She issued a statement from DOA Secretary Joel Brennan that the report was an effort to protect the state’s interests by analyzing the “original and revised project.”
A statement from Foxconn Technology Group criticized the assessment but offered no specific scope for the project, saying it was based on ” ‘current rumors’ related to jobs numbers (and) does not accurately reflect Foxconn’s commitment.”
Analyst Alberto Moel, who until recently covered the Asian flat panel display industry, said Foxconn has a pattern of delivering just a fraction of what it promises. He noted a proposed $1 billion plant in Indonesia and a $30 million plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, both fizzled.
At this stage, the state, the village of Mount Pleasant and taxpayers all have a financial interest in seeing Foxconn come to fruition. But for one particular group — homeowners — the future of “Wisconn Valley” is more personal.
Michael and Joy Mueller used to live at 9725 Braun Road on a 5-acre farm featuring a swimming pond surrounded by 43 evergreens.
“My friends loved it. They said it was like going up north, but you weren’t,” Joy Mueller said of her home of 25 years.
She knew their property would be targeted after seeing a color map provided by the village showing an expansion of two-lane Braun Road in front of their home.
“There was going to be four lanes there — that that was the reason they were taking us under eminent domain,” she said.
The Muellers requested early acquisition from Mount Pleasant in January 2018. The village bought the property for $991,000 plus $233,000 in relocation assistance. It had been assessed at $333,500.
“The end result was fair — because of price — but as far as dealing with them, I thought they (Mount Pleasant officials) were very vague and lied all the time,” Joy Mueller said.
Records obtained by WPR and the statement from Lois raise questions about why the Muellers’ house was purchased.
According to state DOT emails, the idea of widening Braun Road had been scuttled by December 2017. But three months after that email exchange, the Muellers received their relocation order from the village, saying their property was needed for the improvement or expansion of Braun Road.
Lois argued that whether the road is widened is “not relevant” since the Muellers “approached the village regarding sale of the entire parcel.” Joy Mueller said selling only a sliver of property was never presented as an option. Their house was razed June 2.
“I should have never signed, but like I said, I was tired, and I was done,” Mueller said. “They (village officials) bring the word ‘snake’ to a new level for me.”
Kim Mahoney and her family are the only ones left in a subdivision that used to have 13 houses. She believes the village altered road plans to apply pressure to her and her neighbors to leave.
“The village made millionaires out of the vacant land owners but threatened all homeowners with eminent domain, sometimes based on fake road plans, in order to force them to sell on its terms,” Mahoney said.
Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.