State should require reclamation plans for large structures
What happens to big buildings when the last customer leaves the door or the last truck pulls away from the loading dock?
Under current Wisconsin codes, not much, other than passively wait until the property qualifies for a taxpayer bailout through a brownfield grant — a process that could take decades.
In the meantime, as long as the property owners keep up with their taxes and perform the minimal amount of maintenance to keep it from being an imminent danger to human health, there is little the state or local government can say or do about the slowly rotting hulks of vacant commercial and industrial spaces which litter communities across the state.
Wisconsin currently even gives owners of these properties a break on their taxes, dropping the assessments if they sit vacant for a long enough period of time.
If anything, the state of Wisconsin’s glaring Dark Store Loophole incentivizes big box retailers and others to want to sit on empty former storefronts as long as possible because they help drive down the property tax assessments of other retail and commercial spaces in the community and region.
While this is good for the bottom lines of those bloated multi-billion dollar corporations, it is not so great for the residents of communities around the state who have seen their tax burden increase to provide this pernicious form of corporate welfare.
It is also not great for traditional Mom and Pop style commercial enterprises because it diminishes the value of their buildings, which can make getting the financing needed to make improvements a challenge. The longer vacant structures sit, the worse it is for communities. It doesn’t have to be this way. Wisconsin should apply the same standards to structures built on top of the ground as it does to gravel pits. Wisconsin code NR 135.16, requires anyone planning to develop a gravel pit to have an approved reclamation plan. The plan outlines how the property will be redeveloped or restored after the pit is closed.
Some communities such as Wauwatosa have required developers to take out “demolition bonds” for new construction. Requiring that retail developers set aside money in a performance bond, which is held in escrow and can be used by the city to demolish the structure and maintain the site should the store or shopping center become vacant and remain that way for a set period of time.
The challenge with a piecemeal approach is that when it comes to enforcement, giant corporations have the resources available to fight action taken by towns, villages or cities.
The only effective way for it to be uniform for developers and able to be enforced is to establish a statewide rule requiring reclamation plans for any structure over 30,000 square feet that is built or transfers ownership. These types of plans should also include things like deadlines for the property to be redeveloped, repurposed or be demolished and the site restored to its pre-development condition.
Contact your legislators and tell them Wisconsin needs to do something to clean up the blight of empty big box stores once and for all.