FOX 11 Investigates "eyesore" along Highway 41
It's a prime piece of real estate along U.S. Highway 41 and it's a mess.
"It's been there forever," said John Alferi, chairman of the Town of Kaukauna.
Dozens of wrecked cars and other equipment litter the property in Outagamie County.
"It's kind of an eyesore I guess," said De Pere resident Melissa Arendt.
There are old cars with smashed out windows, rusty old trucks, cranes, even a boat.
"We desperately want to see it cleaned up," added State Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna.
Thousands of people drive by this property in the town of Kaukauna every single day.
"It seems like every time I drive by I notice something new out there that I didn't notice before like today I noticed a school bus out there," Arendt said.
There's even an old house that looks like it's falling apart.
That caught the attention of one of our viewers who asked FOX 11 to look into the property. In an email, the viewer says it's been "bothering me for over a decade." The email goes on to ask "...why hasn't anyone demanded this be torn down."
If you just take one look at this property you can tell a lot of this stuff has been here for a very long time. No one knows exactly how long it's been here but we can tell you that much of this equipment has been on this property for decades.
An aerial map from the Outagamie County land office shows scattered pieces of equipment spread out on the property. The aerial map from 10 years earlier looks very similar.
But the 1992 aerial map is different. The house is in a different location.
That's because in 1998, the Department of Transportation bought the home and four acres of land so the frontage road could be built. The DOT says property owners bought the house back from the state and moved it to where it stands today.
The county's aerial map from 1980 also shows items collected on the property. But if you go back to the 1964 aerial map, the property looks like any other farm.
Alferi, the town chairman, says the town had no ordinance in place to stop the old cars and other equipment from piling up on the property.
"It's an eyesore," Alferi said.
When the town finally created an ordinance to deal with the issue in the mid-1980s, it was too late.
"All we can tell him is don't add any junk to it. But he's grand fathered in," Alferi said.
So now the town's hands are tied.
"It's frustrating on one hand because people call up and say what are you doing about it? And they don't like the answer when I say I'm doing what I can," Alferi said.
When asked if there is anything the town can do about do about the property, Alferi replied, "Nothing."
Steineke is very familiar with the property. He used to be on the county board.
"Neither the town nor the county has the authority to force them to clean it up," Steineke said.
Steineke says within the last five years, the Department of Natural Resources looked at the property after a resident complained about it. But the DNR found no issues.
"Every government agency that has any ability to look at this has already looked at it from the county to the DNR to the town to the state, everybody has been involved at some point along the way," Steineke said.
When asked if there is anything he can do as a state lawmaker to address a situation like this, Steineke responded, "I don't believe so. Being that the property was already grand-fathered in under previous law before I ever got into office, I don't think there's anything we could put in place right now that would be retroactive that would force the clean-up of this property."
So what about the property owners? What do they have to say about the property? FOX 11 Investigates tried to contact Donald and Judith Schmidt. Several phone calls went unanswered and no one came to the door when we stopped by their home.
FOX 11 Investigates eventually reached Judith Schmidt on the phone but she did not want to do an interview. She said she hasn't been to the property in 25 years and had nothing to say about it. Schmidt says her husband bought the equipment at auctions and it just accumulated over a number of years.
While the property might not be pleasing to the eye, the owners are not violating any ordinances or laws.
"The property owners aren't doing anything that's illegal," Steineke said. "They're in complete adherence with the law."
"It'd be like having a neighbor with a weedy lawn and the ordinance doesn't cover natural lawns. You can be mad about it but if that's the rule, that's the rule," Alferi said.
The bottom line: No matter what passers-by or politicians might say, the property won't be cleaned up until the property owners decide to clean it up.
Town leaders say this isn't the only property like this in the town. There is another property a few miles away that has similar issues. That one is not nearly as visible as the property along U.S. Highway 41.