Eminent domain examined: Columbia (MO) Missourian, 9/6/05

By Kathryn Buschman

Sunset Hills resident Bernice Cenatiempo wants to keep her house.

She’s lived in the St. Louis suburb for 36 years, and the thought of selling and moving on doesn’t settle well.

“I am happy living in my home,” Cenatiempo said. “(The) developer did not offer enough money so that I could afford the high cost of a retirement community. Most of them do not allow pets — having to get rid of my dog and home would kill me.”

Cenatiempo’s home is one of more than 250 scheduled to be demolished to build the Sunset Hills project, a $165 million retail development.

The Sunset Hills debate is one being looked at by the Missouri Task Force on Eminent Domain, established this summer by Gov. Matt Blunt. The task force is studying the use of eminent domain, the law allowing the seizure of private property without the consent of the owner as long as the property will be used for a public purpose and the owner is justly compensated. Nine task force members are using eminent domain examples throughout the state and country to provide recommendations for future legislation when the task force reports its findings in December.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of eminent domain in Kelo v. New London, when it ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Connecticut city could acquire private property for private developments as long as it promoted economic development.

“What we are going to look at doing is work on the procedures,” said Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, member of the task force. “We are also going to look at who has that power. There is a wide list of folks who have that power and to me, eminent domain is a power that should be very tightly held.”

The largest issue the task force faces is creating a clear definition of the word “blight.” Hobbs said it is loosely defined and the interpretation of what is blighted has expanded over the years. He also wants the task force to look at the definition of “public use” and whether a redevelopment project, like that in Sunset Hills, where a developer promises to increase sales tax revenue and add jobs, is considered public use or if it is a way for municipalities and developers to make money.

According to current wording, Hobbs said farmland in Missouri can be deemed blighted when it does not contain an infrastructure, meaning water or sewer. The reason why it doesn’t have an infrastructure on it is because the farmer is growing corn on it, but that term is loosely defined, he said.

Relocation and replacement costs are other problem areas the task force plans to address.

Although a section of the Missouri Constitution reads, “private property shall not be taken or damaged for public use without just compensation,” Sunset Hills residents affected by the development are arguing adequate compensation is not being offered.

“Homeowners are being offered $113,000 to $160,000 for their property,” Rep. Jim Lemke, R-St. Louis, said. “They couldn’t replace it in Sunset Hills for that amount of money.”

Columbia Missourian: www.columbiamissourian.com