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Rolling battles old standards in eminent domain cases

Joseph Rolling - Eminent Domain Services (Staff Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Joseph Rolling –
Eminent Domain Services (Staff Photo by Kevin Harnack)

“Well, there’s not a lot of us,” Joseph Rolling said laughing, “we are about as specialized an area of a law as you can get.”

Joseph, J.J. as he’s known, Rolling may not be the first lawyer you think of in an emergency. But if you’re a property owner in Wisconsin, he could be your best friend.

Rolling is one of a handful of Wisconsin lawyers specializing in eminent domain and condemnation cases. He found his calling while working at his father’s appraisal company as a high school student.

“We defend property owners and make sure the government treats them fairly,” Rolling said.

The meaning of the word “fairly” can give rise to a lot of debate when you’re going against the government, especially when it’s in a case involving ideas about the public good. The ideas underlying eminent domain laws date to the 19th century.

“It’s true,” said Rolling, “the government uses case law that was decided before Wisconsin was even a state.”

That matters because if the Department of Transportation decides your front yard would make a great highway, you would want your property’s fair market value to be determined using the latest standards, not something from the horse-and-buggy days.

“The government may look at a piece of property and see the lowest common denominator,” Rolling said. “But if you suddenly have to move a driveway hundreds of feet, that impacts the real value of your property.”

“When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake on some of the largest projects, deadlines can get in the way of truly appreciating the value of a landowners property,” Rolling said. “I will zealously defend my clients, but it does get frustrating if the government tries to use the vagueness of the old law to their advantage.”

“Reality is the key,” said Rolling.

There are times when the government may be justified in taking private property for a public project. Still, the UW law school graduate says it’s equally important to remind the authorities that we live in the 21st century — even if they want to act like it’s still the 1800s.


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