Restrictions on eminent domain draw criticism: St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 2/12/06

By Jason Lee

A group of Frenchtown residents say a proposal to restrict the city's use of eminent domain would cripple their efforts to redevelop rundown areas of the historic neighborhood.

"This would be the end of a dream for a lot of people," Frenchtown resident Kim Vest told the St. Charles City Council Tuesday night.

Vest was one of several to criticize a bill that would limit the city's power to allow developers to seize property for economic development projects.

The group urged the council to delay action until they present a Frenchtown redevelopment plan Monday to city officials. They said eminent domain could be part of their proposal and shouldn't be restricted.

Later in the meeting, the council postponed the scheduled vote to allow further discussion. The bill was introduced in December.

Eminent domain has been a controversial issue since the U.S. Supreme Court's June 23 ruling that upheld the right of cities to seize homes and businesses to make way for private developments, if the private use is considered to be of public benefit. 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.

Councilman John Gieseke of Ward 8 has proposed legislation to limit the city's ability to grant such power for projects meant to "increase tax revenue, tax base, employment, or general economic health," according to the bill.

Gieseke said he wants to ease residents and business owners' worries over property being seized for use by private developers. He said the option for developers to seek eminent domain power "takes creative deal-making out" of negotiations with landowners.

However, Maureen Bouxsein of the Frenchtown Neighborhood Association argued such limits could hinder economic revival in the area if condemnation is needed for a developer to acquire rundown property.

"We've been waiting for 30 years to have something positive done for Frenchtown," Bouxsein said.

Frenchtown resident Mark Richmond said he thought eminent domain should only be used as a "last resort," but added that limiting its use would be "irresponsible."

"I can't understand why we're going to throw one of our tools out of the toolbox," Richmond said.

Council President Rory Riddler, whose Ward 1 includes Frenchtown, said he opposes restricting eminent domain because "not all laws fit every case that comes up." Riddler added that eminent domain provides a tool for "private dollars" to help rejuvenate neglected areas of the city.

"If this passes, I'm afraid we won't have a level playing field to compete with other neighboring commercial areas," Riddler said.

Gieseke's proposal includes some exemptions for limiting eminent domain.

The legislation doesn't prohibit the city from approving the use of eminent domain for public uses, such as a road, hospital or military base. The proposal also wouldn't restrict the transfer of land for use by railroad or utility companies as well as to remove uninhabitable properties.

In addition, property that has been vacant or without a business license for at least six months as well as land "where the assessed valuation has decreased by fifty percent or more in a two-year period," would be exempt from the law.

Post-Dispatch: www.stltoday.com