TOWN OF PERRY — Drive by the Hauge Log Church here and it's hard to imagine that the nondescript white building might soon be tugging at the hearts — and wallets — of Norwegians all over the world.
That includes Norway's King Harald and Queen Sonja.
But the tiny church built by Norwegian settlers in southwestern Dane County in 1852 has been the centerpiece of a long court battle that could put the town of Perry on the hook for more than $1 million if two verdicts aren't overturned by the state Court of Appeals.
Among the contingency plans the town has developed involves contacting wealthy Norwegians around the world — including the royal family — and asking for financial aid.
"We are defending a real piece of culture that has been declared a place of historic significance by the nation, the state, the county and the town of Perry," town Chairman Patrick Downing said. "I think it's a reasonable thing to do."
Many Perry residents worry they'll be asked to foot the bill from the lawsuits that stemmed from the town's extraordinary measures to protect the church.
The Hauge ("HOW-ghee") church was built on a hilltop with spectacular views by disciples of Hans Nielsen Hauge, a lay Lutheran preacher persecuted by the established church of Norway in the early 18th century because he sought more informal worship that took power from the preachers and gave it to the congregation. Hauge's ideas flourished in rural areas like mid-1800s Wisconsin where there were fewer preachers.
The trouble for the town began in 2000 when it learned that David Gehl, who owns land next to the church, planned to build a home and barn that officials feared would block most of the views from the church.
The town blocked Gehl from building and eventually used eminent domain to acquire 13 acres of his land as part of a buffer zone around the church.
All told, 14 lawsuits have been filed during the land feud. A judge ruled for Gehl in two of them, including an eminent domain claim, and awarded him $730,107, more than half of which is for attorney fees.
The state Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the case sometime this year. If it upholds both verdicts, the town will owe more than $900,000 because of interest accrued since the initial verdicts. That number will grow to at least $1 million — or $1,366 for each of the town's 732 residents — if the court also orders the town to pay Gehl's attorney fees since the initial verdict.
Either way, such a judgment would be a big hit for a town whose 2011 budget was about $450,000. No matter what the courts decide, the town still will own the buffer zone it created around the church.
Considering fundraising options
Concerned residents filled the town hall last month seeking answers to how the town will pay the court judgments if the appeals are upheld.
Since then, Downing said, officials are considering 65 to 70 fundraising options, including auctions and reaching out for help from Norwegian heritage organizations and Norwegian sister cities to Wisconsin cities.
But Downing says his favorite plan entails calling on rich and powerful Norwegians to help preserve a piece of Norwegian heritage in America.
"I fully expect that if we should end up having to pay what is an unreasonable and unwarranted jury verdict, it won't fall on the town taxpayers," Downing said boldly.
Dee Grimsrud, the president of Madison's Idun Lodge-Sons of Norway and a member of the Hauge Preservation Association, thinks Norwegians will open their wallets to help.
"It's an important part of history that shouldn't be overlooked or neglected and should be taken care of and protected," Grimsrud said.
"I think Norwegians around the world would be appalled if they knew about this," she added.
So far, nobody is stepping up to pledge any cash. Emails seeking comment from Norway's royal family, the U.S. Embassy in Norway and the Norwegian embassy in Washington were not answered.
Professor Frankie Shackelford, an expert on Norwegian language and culture at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, isn't so sure the town's problem will attract much sympathy from outsiders.
"I can hardly imagine a rich Norwegian wanting to pay for a buffer space around a church that is already historic and isn't going anywhere. What that amounts to is giving a subsidy to the town of Perry," Shackelford said.
Both the 69-year-old Gehl and town officials say they are tired of the lawsuits. The Norwegian word to describe both parties in this courtroom drama might be "stabukk": someone who is as stubborn as a goat.
If the appeal is overturned, the case will go back to trial. If the appeal is upheld, Downing hasn't ruled out taking it to the state Supreme Court.
Gehl, who said he has spent well over $1 million in attorney fees, believes both sides will end up losing.
"It's one of these things where there's no way you can win," he said. "They can't win, I can't win."