After months of fighting a $165 million retail development, angry residents of Sunset Hills finally found a government body on Thursday that is sympathetic to their complaints.
But a special panel appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt to study eminent domain laws probably cannot stop the bulldozers. The Sunset Hills project calls for demolishing 254 homes in the Sunset Manor subdivision near Lindbergh Boulevard and Watson Road.
Homeowners from the neighborhood traveled by bus to testify at the Capitol. They complained that city leaders have ignored their objections without putting the issue to voters. They accused developers of pressuring them to sell their homes. Some even wept during the showing of a short film about their neighborhood.
"Our city is ignoring its people and is out of control, and that's why we're here to ask for your help," said Will Aschinger, a spokesman for the group Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab.
The governor created the Eminent Domain Task Force after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that government can use eminent domain for economic development. Blunt described the decision at the time as a "terrible ruling."
The panel's charge is to recommend legislation to the governor within a few months. But some of the Sunset Hills residents wanted more immediate action. Many called on Blunt to immediately halt all eminent domain in the state.
Jessica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that's simply not possible because Blunt "does not have the authority to place a moratorium on eminent domain." Nor, she said, has Blunt voiced a position on the Sunset Hills project.
Robinson said the governor will await the panel's recommendations before saying what legislation he might support.
Among the options that appeared popular among panel members Thursday is limiting the circumstances under which a city or county can deem an area "blighted".
Sen. Chuck Gross, a panel member, said he believes the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it essential for lawmakers to beef up property rights in Missouri statutes. Gross, R-St. Charles, said he may also favor changes to the state constitution.
Other lawmakers said they would introduce bills next year limiting eminent domain authority regardless of what the panel recommends.
The public hearing drew testimony from property owners across the state opposed to development projects.
The hearing kicked off with a presentation in favor of eminent domain by Barbara Geisman, St. Louis deputy mayor for redevelopment. Geisman showed a slide presentation of dilapidated neighborhoods that have been revived thanks to the city's ability to acquire blighted property.
"We can't let one owner stop a project that is wanted and needed by everyone in the city," she said.