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Couple battles DOT over possible loss of home

July 20, 2010

Hales Corners — Tucked along Highway 100, amid the commercial pulse of the village, stands a sleepy, white stucco home.

Fluted flower pots and statues of lions adorn the well-manicured front yard.

There's also another eye-catching display: lawn signs protesting the home's likely demise.

One sign says: "Do the residents of Hales Corners want or need a Bluemound Road?"

Because of the Wisconsin's Department of Transportation's plans to widen Highway 100, the house at 5801 S. 108th St. will likely be demolished.

The owners, John and Mary Haita, are devastated.

The home, built in 1927, exhibits an Italian Renaissance style with Spanish influences and is where the couple has lived for 41 years.

It's where they raised their four children, where their mothers passed away and where they celebrated every holiday. Mary Haita, 71, said they hosted 29 guests for Independence Day.

"I'm not a quitter, even though I feel we are going to be at the losing end," said John Haita, a 77-year-old disabled veteran of the Korean War. "I don't know what health I am going to be in a month from now or a year from now, but I am going to fight to the bitter end."

John Haita said he doesn't want a pity party. He just hopes his signs catch the attention of passers-by.

"I hope people will ask questions and put the state on notice … is this a true democracy? Most people in Hales Corners don't want this construction. Why don't we have a vote on it?" he said.

Construction set for 2017

The state's preferred construction plan calls for the road to shift to the west to make way for six lanes and two turning lanes, said Dennis Shook, a spokesman for the DOT.

The plan would force removal of the Haitas' home, the Bosch restaurant, 5871 S. 108th St., and five other properties near the triangular intersection of 108th Street, Janesville Road and Forest Home Avenue.

Shook said the plan is being reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration and a decision is expected late summer.

The construction, anticipated for 2017, is necessary to prepare for traffic growth and to address safety, Shook said

"In a situation like this, there are going to be people who like it, and people who don't," he said.

Another Bluemound Road?

The Haitas aren't the only ones who don't like the proposal, as Hales Corners officials also are fighting the plans.

Village Administrator Mike Weber says while there is some validity to the DOT's concerns about the intersection, he said heavy traffic is sometimes inevitable in an urban area.

"The village has made expectations very clear. You cannot simply just remove all properties and essentially destroy a historic corner that defines Hales Corners, including the Haita house," Weber said. "It's all a matter of what people are willing to accept. … To expect traffic to be consistent all hours of the day is unrealistic."

Mary Haita said she likes Highway 100 the way it is. The hustle and bustle in the area attracted her and her husband to the home.

"Why do they need to widen it? Just to accommodate traffic between 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.?" she asked. "Whoopty-doo, they (the DOT) just want another Bluemound Road."

Weber said he would rather see the road shift to the east and move the We Energies towers. That option would cost $9.8 million, which is more than the current plan.

House is 'pretty rare'

Dave Zepecki, chairman of the Historical Preservation Commission, said the Haitas submitted an application for their property to be designated a local historical landmark.

Zepecki said the designation could offer some protection against the construction, which could include picking up the home and moving it somewhere else.

The home's unique architecture is being evaluated to determine its historical significance, he added.

Some of the preserved features of the home are the 2-inch thick mahogany doors with original staining and leaded glass, built-in china cabinets, sloped ceilings and plaster walls, John Haita said.

"There are not too many (homes) like it in the village. It's pretty rare," Zepecki said.

Zepecki said the commission is seeking local architectural experts to research the home at no charge. He hopes the commission can make a decision in about a month.

An emotional time

Regardless of whether the home is declared a landmark by the village, it still has special significance for the Haitas.

"I never lived in an apartment complex or a rental unit. One of the first things I did when I made enough money was buying my own home," John Haita said, who also owned the defunct John's Phillips 66 gas station on Highway 100.

John Haita said he would have waited to retire, but was worried about the uncertain future of the highway.

The construction plans have caused anxiety in the Haitas' home life, too.

"Tears well up in Mary's eyes every time we discuss what'll happen to our home and where we'll go," he said. "I think I'd be able to handle it better than she would."

More lawn signs

While the home's history is being examined, the couple has a unique story to tell as well.

John Haita met his wife in 1958 while she was visiting Milwaukee from Greece.

"I met her on a Sunday and we were married by Saturday. We had a six-day engagement," he said.

Though she didn't speak a word of English, John Haita said he "just knew" they would be compatible, as he sipped a frothy mug of Greek coffee.

Mary Haita said she was smitten with his good looks.

The couple spends their days relaxing at home, gardening - and waiting.

"I'm an old man; she's an old woman. What the hell do we do?" he asked.

But John Haita, who said he has always fought his own battles, isn't going to keep quiet.

Expect more lawn signs, he said.

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