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Former landowner faces deadline to remove sunken barge

By Marie Rohde

The former owner of a storage yard in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley whose property was seized through eminent domain faces a Dec. 1 deadline to remove a barge that sank in the river next to his former property.

If Basil Ryan Jr. fails to haul the barge from the Menomonee River by the deadline, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will do the job and be paid with the more than $100,000 of Ryan’s money that Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper has ordered held in escrow. Ryan also could face a fine of between $5 and $500 a day, plus legal fees.

“I am ready to jump out of my skin,” Cooper said during a telephone conference Friday with the lawyers in the case. “I want that barge removed.”

In 2009, Cooper ordered Ryan to pay $37,691 for failing to remove the barge.

The barge sank more than four years ago and has been a part of a larger legal battle that Ryan, a former Franklin alderman and mayoral candidate, is waging with the state.

Federal officials have complained that the sunken barge has impeded river traffic, polluted the river and clogged filters on an intake valve for the nearby WE Energies power plant.

Ryan’s battle with the state began in October 2004 when the state condemned a 10-acre riverfront property at 260 N. 12th St. owned by Ryan. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation used eminent domain to acquire the property for use as a staging area during reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange.

The state paid Ryan $1.35 million for the property used for storing cars from Ryan’s towing business. Ryan sued the state, saying the price was too low. A jury awarded him $2,001,725 — less than the $3.5 million he sought. An appellate court recently upheld the award and refused to grant a new trial as Ryan requested.

Ryan’s lawyer, Daniel Biersdorf of Minneapolis, said he was petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case. Biersdorf said eight other state high courts have ruled and have been equally split on whether contamination should affect a property’s price.

“The key question is what role, if any, the contamination of the property should play in determining a property’s value in an eminent domain case,” Biersdorf said.

State officials said Ryan was told several times after the condemnation to remove the 120-foot long, 30-foot wide barge by August 2005. They said the barge was overgrown with vegetation. In mid-July 2006, the barge sank, according to records.

Biersdorf said the barge went with the land the DOT bought and it was the state’s responsibility.

“I’ve talked to other barge owners and they say all barges leak a little,” Biersdorf said. “Our guess is that the DOT never pumped it out. It sank under the DOT’s watch.”

The state disagreed and Cooper earlier ruled that the barge was Ryan’s responsibility.

JoAnne Kloppenburg, the assistant attorney general handling the case, said Ryan has been dragging his feet from the beginning.

“Mr. Ryan has waited until each deadline set by the court to act,” according to court papers attributed to Kloppenburg. “The excuses for noncompliance ring hollow.”

Biersdorf said Ryan had hired a marine salvage operation to remove the barge. The operation is tied up with work in the Gulf of Mexico, Biersdorf said, adding that a DNR permit required to remove the barge was not obtained until Thursday.

The crew removing the barge will have to put up barriers to prevent plumes of sediment from breaking lose and causing contamination. According to documents, crews will not be allowed cut up the barge before removal but will have to use a costlier, more dangerous process of lifting the barge out of the water in one piece, according to court records.

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