Masters of their domain? St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 12/11/05

By Jason Lee

St. Charles could join ranks with O'Fallon by outlawing the seizure of private property for economic development projects such as a shopping center.

City Councilman John Gieseke, Ward 8, wants the city to forbid the use of eminent domain for economic development without the property owner's consent. The proposed legislation would bar the controversial practice for projects meant to "increase tax revenue, tax base, employment or general economic health."

"If the city wants to redevelop an area, this ordinance will make the developer understand that they're going to have to pay fair market value and work with people who own property in St. Charles," Gieseke said.

However, the city could still approve eminent domain for public uses, such as a road, hospital or military base. The ordinance also wouldn't restrict the transfer of land for use by railroad or utility companies as well as to remove abandoned or uninhabitable properties.

In July, O'Fallon officials unanimously passed an ordinance limiting the use of eminent domain for streets, parks and public water and sewer systems, but not for economic development.

That decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 23 that the Constitution requires only the possibility of economic gain for government to acquire private property from one individual for the benefit of another. The decision was interpreted as meaning a developer building a strip mall would be providing as much public benefit as a government organization taking land to construct a new road.

The St. Charles County Council also weighed in by passing a resolution July 11 stating it "sternly disagrees" with the court's decision.

In October, St. Charles officials granted eminent domain power to Lindenwood University to acquire a 4-acre site for construction of its long-planned fine and performing arts center. The parcel included three vacant buildings as well as a heating and air conditioning business. In the end, Lindenwood officials avoided using eminent domain by negotiating sale of the properties, but that didn't deter residents from speaking out against the controversial practice.

One of those was Kevin Rogers, who last month told the council he's concerned the city could eventually force the sale of his Dairy Queen at 2195 First Capitol Drive for redevelopment. Rogers said the restaurant has been at that location since 1962.

"I'm strongly opposed to somebody coming and taking away my Dairy Queen to develop it and make some developer rich," Rogers said.

Gieseke said Rogers' comments weighed heavily on his decision. Gieseke said he wants to offer some comfort to residents and "bring the worry out of people's minds." He said other council members could join him in sponsoring the bill.

"Right now it doesn't matter if a business is successful or not," Gieseke said. "It can still be taken and that's not right."

Limits to eminent domain also could come from Jefferson City. A task force appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt recently recommended 18 changes to state law. Blunt plans to review and present those recommendations to legislators for consideration in January.

Among the recommendations, the report argues property should only be condemned for public use, such as for utilities or tearing down blighted property. The task force also said legislators should tighten the state's standards for declaring property as blighted when eminent domain is used.

St Louis Post-Dispatch: www.stltoday.com